Roberto Di Matteo last night attempted to bolster his Chelsea team's morale ahead of tonight's Champions League quarter-final first-leg tie against Benfica, following a withering assessment of their season by Frank Lampard.
The Chelsea caretaker manager said that he still believed he had "quality" in his side and that they could rescue a difficult season by making the semi-finals and claiming one of the Champions League places, in spite of midfielder Lampard announcing Chelsea had declined. "The fixtures and where we are in the table doesn't lie – we're not as good as we used to be," the England midfielder told Chelsea TV.
Lampard said that Chelsea's home form had been their downfall this season and was damning of the performance against Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday. "You know that a derby against a very good Tottenham side is going to be tough but I don't think we were at it enough," he said. "We had to play more with the urgency we showed against Napoli. Against Tottenham, we didn't really do enough to lift the fans."
In Lisbon last night, Di Matteo was forced to defend the progress of his team at a press conference at the Estadio da Luz with Chelsea's chairman, Bruce Buck, and chief executive, Ron Gourlay, watching from the back of the room. The last time the two Chelsea directors observed a press conference away from home in the Champions League was when Andre Villas-Boas called on the board to make a public affirmation of its support for him before the Napoli tie in the previous round.
Asked whether Lampard's assessment of his team was fair, Di Matteo said: "We've had a difficult season. The numbers say that, so there is no point in denying it's been a difficult season. But we have quality in this team and many good players. I still think this Chelsea team is a very good team.
"Away at Napoli, we conceded a few too many goals to be able to have an easier home game in the second leg. We'd like a good game tomorrow, score a goal and make sure in the second leg we have a good chance to go through into the next round."
Chelsea have not won in their last five away ties in the Champions League, going back to the win in Denmark over Copenhagen in the first knockout round of the competition last season. His team are five points off Tottenham in fourth place in the Premier League with eight games of the season to play but yesterday he put a brave face on the situation.
Di Matteo said: "The season has been very difficult for us. Chelsea used to be in the top two or top three, at least. So it's been hard for us, domestically. But we're in the semi-finals of a domestic cup, and in the quarter-finals of the Champions League.
"I am positive about the team, but my players are positive too. We have great belief in our abilities. That's what we're going to try and express [against Benfica]."
There has been some controversy in Portugal about footage of Didier Drogba, on Chelsea TV, which appears to show the striker mocking the prospect of playing Benfica when the players hear the draw at the training ground.
The club said that the reaction of the player had been misinterpreted but it appears to have struck a nerve among the Benfica staff. The coach, Jorge Jesus, whose team have lost just once at the Estadio da Luz all season, said that his team should not be underestimated, after Benfica propressed from the Champions League group in which Manchester United were eliminated and Sporting Lisbon knocked Mancester City out of the Europa League.
"Who knows what he [Drogba] was thinking? He might just have been joking, we don't know. But Portuguese clubs have eliminated both Manchester United and Manchester City, the top two teams in the Premier League, so that should act as an indication of the strengths of Portuguese football. Any response to Didier Drogba we'll give out on the field."
Both David Luiz and Ramires, former Benfica players, are expected to start tonight and Di Matteo said that his team went into the game with confidence. "I believe in my team, my squad, my players. I don't think we're a weak team, not at all. We have, still, many games to play in the Premier League to reach fourth, and two games in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. It looked a little gloomier two weeks ago, so we're pleased to be here."
Di Matteo confirmed that if Chelsea reach the semi-finals of the Champions League they will ask the FA to move their FA Cup semi-final against either Spurs or Bolton forward two days. Currently Chelsea are due to play the game on Sunday 15 April but would then potentially have to play Barcelona three days later.
Kick-off 7.45pm, Estádio da Luz. TV: Sky Sports 2, HD2 Ref P Tagliavento (It)
Benfica: ARTUR, PEREIRA, LUISAO, GARCIA, JARDEL, EMERSON, GAITÁN, WITSEL, CESAR, RODRIGO, CARDOZO
Chelsea: CECH, COLE, TERRY, LUIZ, IVANOVIC, STURRIDGE, LAMPARD, MATA, ESSIEN, RAMIRES, DROGBA