Victory against Benfica tonight could blur bigger picture for Chelsea

Beating Benfica will bring on a crushing fixture congestion that may spell disaster on three fronts

It is the start, tonight, of potentially 12 Chelsea games in the space of just 40 days for Roberto Di Matteo who, when the season is over, would still expect to find himself in the figurative wilderness when it comes to his management career.

As the only English club still involved in European football, and the only one with a stake in three different competitions, a gruelling run of games awaits Chelsea if they are successful in carrying their 1-0 advantage from the first leg and eliminating Benfica at Stamford Bridge tonight. Those 12 games include a prospective Champions League two-legged semi-final and potentially the FA Cup final on 5 May, but not the Champions League final itself.

Should Chelsea reach both finals they will play 13 games in 46 days. Their penultimate Premier League fixture away at Liverpool on 6 May will have to be pushed back into the following midweek before the final league game of the season against Blackburn Rovers, which must be played on 13 May. The club have accepted that their attempts to get the FA Cup semi-final against Tottenham Hotspur moved forward two days will not be successful.

If this had been any of Chelsea's previous eight seasons there would have been less concern about the fixture congestion, but the threat to their hitherto unchallenged status as a top-four club has transformed the picture.

The problem for Di Matteo is that the undoubted priority for his team is making up the five points on Arsenal and Spurs above them in third and fourth place in the Premier League and ensuring qualification for the Champions League next season. The subplot is that an unexpected end-of-season tilt at glory in Europe and the FA Cup might just prove to be the undoing of Chelsea when it comes to finishing in the top four.

The sheer weight of the games they will have to play in order to fight on all fronts this season is the elephant in the corner for Chelsea. All Di Matteo's players trained last night, including David Luiz, Raul Meireles and Didier Drogba, who were injury concerns, and he will need all of them if he is to get through the next seven weeks.

While qualifying for the Champions League next season could be accomplished by winning the competition outright in May, the more realistic route would be to finish in the top four of the Premier League. Yet the bind is that, while Di Matteo cannot afford to be uncompetitive in the cup competitions, it will be those games that put pressure on his squad when it comes to winning the crucial Premier League games.

Should Chelsea triumph tonight they will, for instance, have to play a very tough sequence of three games in six days starting a week on Sunday with the FA Cup semi-final against Spurs on 15 April. The first leg of the Champions League semi-final will follow on the Wednesday. Three days later on Saturday 21 April they will have to play Arsenal away at the Emirates – a pivotal league game.

Di Matteo is loath to discuss it but even he had to admit that the problem is looming. "It might become an issue at some point, I don't know," he said. "Fortunately, we have a fully fit squad which will help us in the run-in, to be able to play every player we have and give everybody a chance, an opportunity, and some fresh players as well.

"I think there are a lot of clubs that would like to have so many games, to be involved in all these competitions. We have to keep going and try and stay in these competitions, and try to win something. It's very demanding for the players, but we're in a good place. All the players are available, that will help."

Tonight, he has to decide whether to start with Frank Lampard or Meireles in midfield, both players competing for the holding place alongside John Obi Mikel. Salomon Kalou, who scored the goal in the first leg, is now back in favour and most likely to start on the left of the three in a 4-2-3-1 formation. There is another big call on whether to stick with the – relatively – in-form Fernando Torres over Didier Drogba.

The injury news is worse for Benfica, who travelled to London without the injured centre-halves Ezequiel Garay, Miguel Vitor and Jardel. The Portuguese club's manager, Jorge Jesus, said last night that he would have no alternative but to play the midfielder Javi Garcia alongside Luisao in the centre of defence.

Should they make it past Benfica tonight, Chelsea will find themselves in the club's sixth Champions League semi-final in the space of nine years and yet the mood yesterday, ahead of the quarter-final second leg between Milan and Barcelona last night, was that they have never looked further away from winning the competition than they do now.

So far Di Matteo has won six of his eight games in charge, although when the team have come up against their biggest tests – Manchester City and Tottenham in the league – they have failed to win. Nevertheless, it is an improvement on the end of the Andre Villas-Boas regime, when they were not even winning what should have been relatively straightforward games.

The club is in a curious position. By tomorrow they could find themselves in the semi-final of the Champions League but, should they not take full points in the league against Wigan Athletic and Fulham on Saturday and Monday, then the pressure will really be on for fourth place. Similarly, they at last have a full squad from which to select, and in Torres a player who seems finally to be coming into form, but a manager who is not likely to be in charge beyond May.

In some respects the pressure is off in the Champions League, if only because for Chelsea it is that much more acute in the race for fourth place in the Premier League. But should they prevail tonight then thoughts will turn to the possibility of that Munich final next month and the chance that they might at long last end their wait for this one outstanding trophy in their collection.

Chelsea v Benfica: Three key confrontations

Jon Obi Mikel v Pablo Aimar

One of the most gifted creative players of his generation, Pablo Aimar will need to find time and space if Benfica are to score the goals necessary to reach the semi-finals. Mikel's job will be to deny the Argentinian playmaker those two things, tracking his runs, shutting off his openings and not conceding too many free-kicks. He will certainly have had easier evenings in his Chelsea career.

Branislav Ivanovic v Gaitan

The Serbian right-back is always dependable in defence and attack, and was excellent in the famous 4-1 defeat of Napoli here in the last 16. Tonight in Nicolas Gaitan he will face almost his opposite as a footballer, with none of his ruggedness but much more wit. Gaitan might not limit Ivanovic's bursts forward in support of Ramires, but will certainly try to tease him out of position with his intelligent movement.

Fernando Torres v Luisao

After two goals against Leicester, an assist in the first leg at Benfica, and another goal at Villa Park, Torres may finally be hitting something approaching good form for the first time at Stamford Bridge. Tonight he will find his path to goal blocked by Luisao, an uncompromising and experienced Brazilian international centre-back, but one for whom Torres' rediscovered burst of pace might just be too much.

Travel
travel
News
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014
peopleTim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
News
Jamie and Emily Pharro discovering their friend's prank
video
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift crawls through the legs of twerking dancers in her 'Shake It Off' music video
musicEarl Sweatshirt thinks so
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Our resilience to stress is to a large extent determined by our genes
science
Travel
travel
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
sportBesiktas 0 Arsenal 0: Champions League qualifying first-leg match ends in stalemate in Istanbul
News
Pornography is more accessible - and harder to avoid - than ever
news... but they still admit watching it
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
musicKate Bush asks fans not to take photos at London gigs
News
i100
Extras
indybest
Sport
Manchester United are believed to have made a £15m bid for Marcos Rojo
sportWinger Nani returns to Lisbon for a season-long loan as part of deal
News
news
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
O'Toole as Cornelius Gallus in ‘Katherine of Alexandria’
filmSadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

But could his predictions of war do the same?
Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

Young at hort

Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

Beyond a joke

Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

A wild night out

Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

Besiktas vs Arsenal

Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment