Roberto Di Matteo's rejuvenated Chelsea roll forward to their next great challenge tomorrow night. Since taking charge, their caretaker manager Di Matteo has summoned more out of Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard than Andre Villas-Boas ever could. Sunday's FA Cup semi-final defeat of Tottenham Hotspur was thrilling, but Barcelona tomorrow night will be a very different challenge.
The fact Chelsea are still competing for the Champions League, though, as well as reaching an FA Cup final, and fighting to finish fourth, is testament to the stability and the improvement Di Matteo has induced in his six-week tenure so far. The chaos, turmoil and discord of the Villas-Boas era has been replaced by something more collegiate and more successful.
Communication, according to the players, has been the difference. "He's done brilliant," Lampard said after Sunday night's victory. "You can see the desire and love he has for the club and the fans relate to that. He's done the simple things right, he's got individuals playing well, with confidence. The basics of management for me is man-management and he's done that brilliant."
Didier Drogba agreed: "I think the most important thing is the communication," he said of Di Matteo, "and it's easier when you win games. The spirit is better when you win games."
Lampard and Drogba are both veterans of the Jose Mourinho era who Villas-Boas did not see as representing Chelsea's future. That might well be true, but they can still provide a compelling version of Chelsea's present, as showed at Wembley, where they scored an excellent goal each.
Drogba's opener was an astonishing mix of strength, technique and audacity, but he thanked Lampard for the pass. Eight seasons of playing together have bred quite an understanding between the two.
"I'm happy because the pass from Lamps was fantastic, like a lot of my goals here," Drogba said. "I think he was involved in 60 or even 80 per cent of my goals. So, really, I want to thank him because he's been there for eight years with me and giving me all these nice goals and making it easier for me to score."
The praise was requited, from midfielder to striker. "Didier came up with something special which you need your strikers to do now and then," Lampard said. "To get a yard of space on a defender like William Gallas and hit it with your so-called wrong foot into the top corner... Didi has hit some iconic goals for Chelsea over the years and that goes right in there with them."
Of all the great things the pair have achieved over the years, overcoming Barcelona would be the peak. It will be their fourth Champions League semi-final together (Lampard also played in one before Drogba arrived), but by far their hardest. Their first three were against Liverpool, and in the three years since Andres Iniesta's famous desperate intervention at Stamford Bridge the two teams – then legitimate rivals – have moved in opposite directions. But two-legged football is not a pure merit test, and Drogba knows Chelsea have a chance. "It's a 50-50, even if they are said to be the best team in the world," he said. "There are two games. Anything can happen."
The underdog role is not one with which Chelsea are familiar but it may well work in their favour. They must win at Stamford Bridge tomorrow night, and hope that German referee Felix Brych allows them to exploit their physical advantage at set-pieces. But if they can take a lead to Spain, and sit on it, they might just find crucial game-winning goals on the break.
"I don't mind if people write us off against Barcelona," Lampard said.
"We're in the semi-final on merit. I understand what people are saying. Everyone has this feeling with Barcelona that they're going to roll over everyone. When they're at their best they can do that. We have to take them on and play the way we did in the FA Cup."
Chelsea showed enough against Spurs, Lampard said, to make Barcelona think.
"Barcelona won't be underestimating us," he said. "They've proved themselves as a team and as players. We'll concentrate on ourselves. If we play the
way we did against Spurs, with the focus and determination plus the ability we
have in our team we have to believe we have a chance. If we do that we can give anyone in world football a game."
True enough, but there is everyone in world football, and then there is Lionel Messi. Lampard admitted that the little genius is even better now than he was three years ago, when he was good enough. "He's a different player to 2009," Lampard added. "He was a fantastic player then but now he's improved even more. The level he's taken his game to is something I've never seen before. I grew up on [Diego] Maradona who was my idol as a player but Messi has taken it even further, certainly in his club football."
It will be difficult, but Lampard is delighted to have the challenge ahead of him. "Our fixture list is amazing and thank God for that because when we lost away at Napoli you could see our season flitting away," he said. "All of a sudden we're interested in everything."