Chelsea go into tonight's decisive Champions League match against CFR Cluj – an encounter they, with some degree of embarrassment given their faltering campaign, need to win to guarantee progress into the last 16 of the competition – with their manager, Luiz Felipe Scolari, feeling the pressure. How do we know? Because, yesterday, he so vehemently told us that being in charge at Stamford Bridge is as nothing compared to previous jobs he has done. Namely, coaching the Brazilian national team. Chelsea? That is "zero pressure" for Scolari.
At the same time Scolari is considering something of a gamble – although, in truth, brushing aside the Romanian champions should not be a hardship no matter what formation he deploys – by playing Didier Drogba alongside Nicolas Anelka in a two-man attack. Chelsea, with Frank Lampard suspended following his dismissal against Bordeaux in the previous European tie, experimented with such in training on Sunday and, again, tried the pair in tandem yesterday – even if Scolari appeared to claim he had not had enough training ground hours to finesse the strikers as a partnership. "When I have time to train them more and play them together, I have confidence for my system with two strikers. If not, I won't," he said.
The fact that he is toying with going with Drogba, whose future and commitment remain in doubt as much as his fitness, and Anelka, even if he ultimately does not consider this the right time, represents not just Chelsea's need to win the match convincingly. It is also an acknowledgement from Scolari that, following representations from senior players, he accepts that he needs to vary tactics and formation. Although such discussions were aimed to be constructive, and not to undermine the manager, who is popular among the squad, by their very nature they add to the scrutiny under which Scolari operates and by which he is irked.
Not that he was having any of that yesterday. "You know how many people live in Brazil?" Scolari said when asked about pressure and the claim unwise at best, from his assistant Ray Wilkins – whose foot-in-mouth habit is a concern surely for the manager – that the 60-year-old was feeling tired by the season's relentless exertions. "One hundred and eighty million. And I was there. You think this is pressure? It is zero pressure. Pressure was when I was coach of the national team because everyone in Brazil is the coach."
He won the World Cup with his own country in 2002, of course, and the Champions League would be a fine adornment to a stellar CV, even if Scolari knows that Chelsea will have to play far better than they have done so far in Europe this season if they are to reach next May's final in Rome. Not going through from Group A is unthinkable, and as much as the club's owner, Roman Abramovich, is enjoying having Scolari running his team, even if he is making the task difficult by, so far, appearing reluctant to spend in January to acquire the striker the manager so desperately, obviously needs, the Russian billionaire's patience will be tested to the full if that does somehow happen.
"If we lose, we lose," Scolari said when asked about that prospect, perhaps as much through pricked pride as experience. "It is possible. If I lose and we are out of the Champions League then this is life. This is football."
Maybe so but he cannot expect such a phlegmatic response from his pay-masters, who demand big European nights as a given for the second half of the season.
The bottom line is that, after draws and a defeat to Arsenal, and with the Carling Cup already unattainable, Chelsea need a convincing, thumping victory to get matters back on track, at home at least. Then Scolari will be able to push on. If not then the pressure on him, real or imaginary, will increase and he will have to deal with it. Or not.
Tonight Chelsea have Deco back, after suspension, with Joe Cole also training yesterday and set to come back in, with Florent Malouda's star having waned following a series of worrying performances. Deco, meanwhile, admitted that, with goals needed, Lampard's absence will be felt. "It's difficult to play without Frank," the Portuguese said. "He is a good player. He is one of the leaders of the team. But I think we can win."
A concern will be that John Terry is one booking from suspension but then it would be no concern at all if Chelsea were to crash out of the competition, so it is unthinkable that the captain, too, will not play against Cluj, who pushed Scolari's side earlier this season in Romania, and who won away in Rome but have since fallen out of contention through the resurgence of Bordeaux and the Italians. The Romanian season has also reached its mid-point, which meant Cluj had a free weekend. They will be either fresh or rusty – depending on whether they treat this tie as a sight-seeing trip to London or a chance to collect a memorable scalp.
Chelsea (probable, 4-1-4-1): Cech; Bosingwa, Terry, Alex, A Cole; Mikel; Kalou, Deco, Ballack, J Cole; Anelka.
CFR Cluj (probable, 4-2-3-1): Stancioiu; Panin, Alcantara, Cadu, Pereira; Muresan, Dani; Dubarbier, Trica, Culio; Yssouf Kone.
Referee: P Frojdeldt (Sweden).Reuse content