James Lawton: Roberto Di Matteo won this battle but he faces many more at Chelsea
Chelsea seemed intent on hara-kiri, then found the nerve of champions
Whatever the outcome of the Clattenburg case, there is a new and quite oppressive obligation facing Chelsea's ultimate trouble-shooter Roberto Di Matteo, the man who last season dredged up the club's greatest glory from the deepest crisis.
Di Matteo redeemed a campaign that had started so catastrophically with a Champions League triumph surely beyond the dreams of the owner Roman Abramovich. Now he is obliged to hold together one which started with superb momentum.
For the most compelling reasons, though, you just cannot put it past the powers of a man who will surely always be remembered at Stamford Bridge as the manager who so doggedly made the impossible happen.
Last night provided another piece of extraordinary evidence that Di Matteo is a football man with a remarkable capacity to grow strong at the most broken of places.
The moment of passing vindication was delivered with a League Cup victory over Manchester United's collection of ageing wisdom and raw talent that had for so long seemed likely to be as elusive as a moment of true peace and serenity in the corridors of Stamford Bridge.
The killing stroke came, fittingly enough, from one of Chelsea's most enigmatic figures, the brilliant but so often psychologically dislocated Daniel Sturridge.
However, even in that late blaze of well-being it remained true that Di Matteo's current challenge has assumed some of the dimensions of the one which overwhelmed his predecessor Andre Villas-Boas.
It is one hugely complicated by the potential distractions of the decision to push for the prosecution of the referee at the heart of Sunday's eruption in the match against United, one which was formally confirmed yesterday despite the dropping of one half of the charge that Mark Clattenburg used inappropriate language against John Obi Mikel and Juan Mata. While the Mata accusation is dropped for a lack of hard evidence, Chelsea continue to insist that the referee racially abused Mikel.
This is plainly a perilous journey on which Chelsea's reputation will come under as many question marks as that of the embattled referee – not to mention the wider covering all of football – and as last night's League Cup resumption of the battle wore on there was still more evidence that Chelsea may well be developing a growing sense of persecution.
That, in all the circumstances, was maybe inevitable when referee Lee Mason refused Chelsea a penalty when the raised arm of United defender Michael Keane stopped a shot of Mata at a most pivotal moment.
Chelsea were unfurling some of their best football as they fought to head off the possibility of a third straight defeat. Had Mata got the decision, and won a second penalty after David Luiz had drawn Chelsea level from the spot in the first half, the creative impact of second-half substitutes Oscar and Eden Hazard might have sharply lifted the tension which came when Nani combined with Anderson to restore United's lead at 3-2 coming up to the hour.
As it was, Di Matteo, who preserved both Mikel and Mata at the start in what seemed like an attempt to create a sense of business as usual, was obliged to continue to sweat on the fact that his team's nonchalant defence had given Ryan Giggs and Javier Hernandez the chances to plunder easy goals.
When Gary Cahill equalised with a goal which mercifully did not plunge us back into another ferocious goal-line controversy, there was plenty of evidence that the Chelsea manager might indeed have created a valuable amount of breathing space against the spectre of still another foundation-shaking crisis. United's mission of disruption was just seconds away from completion when Chelsea won a reprieve with the last-minute penalty beautifully converted by Hazard.
Di Matteo knew that he had been able to staunch some of the blood-letting. Chelsea did not on this occasion turn in on themselves in the face of largely self-created problems.
They kept playing and some of their work was of a quite superior quality. Chelsea seemed intent on hara-kiri for much of the evening but in the end they found the rhythm and the nerve of potential champions. Once again, Di Matteo was a man in a corner. But then few of his rivals have displayed quite such a capacity to fight their way out. He is surely becoming the prime contender as football's survivor in chief, and the sense of it this was only enhanced in an exultant stadium when Ramires clinically finished a movement of genuine grandeur.
It may not have been the night Chelsea cast away all the clouds above Stamford Bridge but this morning there is surely just, perceptibly a shaft or two of sunlight.
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