It is only five weeks since a disorganised, mutinous Chelsea team without Frank Lampard Didier Drogba and Michael Essien in the first XI went down 3-1 in Naples and the clock began ticking on Andre Villas-Boas' doomed regime. Last night Roberto Di Matteo left the same three players out of his team and Chelsea emerged with the kind of win that evoked the best moments of Jose Mourinho's era.
That is to say that even without those three – and only Lampard played any role as a substitute –Di Matteo's team looked well-organised and patient and when their opportunity came on the counter-attack, Salomon Kalou scored the goal that puts them on the brink of the Champions League semi-finals.
In the tradition of the best Chelsea teams of the last 10 years, they defended with an obstinacy that can break the hearts of attackers — take a bow John Terry, David Luiz and, would you believe it, Paulo Ferreira. This was the Portuguese full-back's first start of the year but he played his part in a Chelsea team that felt balanced, fresh and able to handle the very best that Benfica threw at them.
Which was, in truth, not saying much. The Portuguese team were a major disappointment. It should not be forgotten that Benfica were previously unbeaten in 10 straight games in Europe and had only lost once at home this season before last night. The team that qualified from Manchester United's group found Chelsea impossible to break down
What differentiated last night's performance from the Villas-Boas team's car-crash team in Naples? It started in defence where Terry, injured for the game in Italy, and Luiz created the platform for the win and also in Petr Cech who made one crucial save from Jardel on 67 minutes.
While Villas-Boas' selections became increasingly fraught, and more players found themselves out in the cold, Di Matteo has made a virtue of bringing those peripheral figures back in to the team. This was Kalou's first start in the Champions League this season. Fernando Torres, picked ahead of Drogba last night, rewarded his manager with an industrious performance.
Di Matteo will need that squad as the games pile up. If they do not beat Aston Villa on Saturday then the prospect of Champions League football next season will become even more distant. Then there is that FA Cup semi-final with Tottenham looming two weeks on Sunday. Di Matteo will want to remain competitive in both cup competitions but his focus has to be ensuring Champions League qualification for next season.
Benfica's manager Jorge Jesus complained that this was "not a just result" but before they scored Chelsea had two chances in the second half, for Kalou and Juan Mata that might have decided the game. Only two teams in the history of the Champions League have lost the first leg of a knockout tie at home and gone on to progress to the next round. On last night's evidence, Benfica will not be the third come a week today at Stamford Bridge.
While Di Matteo refused to take anything for granted last night, all roads appear to lead to Barcelona, who face Milan tonight, in the semi-finals. Eliminating them is a whole different prospect but as the last English team standing, Chelsea have rediscovered some of that form that once made them such a force in this competition.
It was their first away win in the Champions League since they beat Copenhagen in Denmark in the first knock-out round last season. In terms of significance it bore more resemblance to the comeback to win 2-1 against Valencia in 2007. Benfica did all the huffing and puffing but it was Chelsea who looked the more assured.
Aside from the sending off for Christophe Lollichon, Chelsea's excitable French goalkeeping coach this was a smooth performance. Even Jesus was forced to concede that the introduction of Lampard with 20 minutes remaining stretched the game further. The likes of Nicolas Gaitan and Axel Witsel, whose reputations have grown in recent years, did not really create a great deal for Oscar Cardozo, the big Paraguayan striker.
Ramires, returning to his former club, gave Emerson problems down Benfica's left and if the Chelsea man could pass the ball in the final third he would be a serious threat. John Obi Mikel and Raul Meireles are not an inspirational midfield pairing but they were solid. Meireles' crisp shot, saved by Artur, was Chelsea's best moment before half-time.
With the pressure on them and a restlessness about the stadium, up to a third empty, Benfica pushed in the second half. Luiz kicked an effort from Cardozo off the line two minutes after the break. Pablo Aimar had a shot saved. Yet in the first 15 minutes of the second half, Chelsea had the better chances to score.
The first came from Torres' cross on 52 minutes when Kalou could not control his header on goal. Then just on the hour Cech's long kick down the middle was touched on by Torres and Mata steered the ball around Artur. The angle was tight and while he got his foot around the ball it hit the outside of the post.
In those two moments, Chelsea sensed the opportunity to turn this tie decisively to their advantage. Benfica looked vulnerable. On 67 minutes, Chelsea survived their closest scare when Jardel's header from Gaitan's cross was brilliantly stopped by Cech. But when at last Di Matteo's team took the lead on the counter-attack it did not come as much of a surprise.
Torres, who had been making inroads all game, accelerated away from Jardel, stayed on his feet despite a barge, and delayed until Kalou was in position. From the right, Torres picked him out beautifully and Kalou stabbed the ball home from close range. Much of the stadium fell quiet.
Ashley Cole lunged in for a late clearance but Chelsea never looked too rattled. On nights like these they look like an established member of the European elite but they only need to look at the Premier League table to know that those days might not last forever.
Man of the match Luiz.
Match rating 6/10.
Referee P Tagliavento (It).