For once, the process of team evolution that cost Andre Villas-Boas his job can be shelved. To hell, for Wednesday night only, with all talk of projects and journeys and lowering the age of the Chelsea team while increasing its marks for artistic impression.
All that matters is that the 3-1 lead obtained by Napoli just under three weeks ago is eclipsed at Stamford Bridge and, if that means bringing back Gianfranco Zola or even Ron "Chopper" Harris for the occasion, let alone relying on Frank Lampard and the newly 34-year-old Didier Drogba, few of the blue persuasion will be complaining.
Since Roberto Di Matteo took over from Villas-Boas and introduced, by his own account, a more consultative radicalism, two matches have been won – against Birmingham in the FA Cup and a 10-man Stoke on Saturday – but the change in atmosphere around the Bridge probably owes less to anything that has happened on fields trodden by Chelsea than the drama last Tuesday in which Arsenal almost wiped out a four-goal advantage held by the Serie A leaders, Milan.
Napoli lie fourth after emerging from Friday's match at home to Cagliari with a scoreline, 6-3, that summarises their strengths and weaknesses: while, in Edinson Cavani, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Marek Hamsik, they possess one of the most formidable attacks in Europe, the defence can constitute a vivid illustration of the slower pace at which the top level of the Italian game tends to be conducted by comparison with the English.
Carefully probed – and Di Matteo stresses the need for a balanced approach – Napoli could be vulnerable to the quality of pass with which Juan Mata ushered Drogba towards the goal against Stoke. It promises to be quite a night and Di Matteo, who is not always the most excitable of characters, entered into the spirit of things by predicting "a hell of a match" and adding: "I hope our supporters are going to create the right atmosphere for us to perform at the highest level."
Nor was he in any mood to deny that Arsenal's display – after leading by three goals at the interval, they went out on a 4-3 aggregate – might provide a psychological boost to his players as well as those intending to urge them on. "The players realise they can win," said Di Matteo, a Swiss-born veteran of 34 matches for Italy. "Arsenal did and now it's up to us to have the belief we can do the same."
Di Matteo wisely avoids talk of the succession to Villas-Boas, preferring to speak of the short term that, so far, has been kind to him. "At this stage of the season," he said, "we have a job to do. We are in the FA Cup quarter-finals and, although it is always scrappy against Stoke, we have done it [earned three points towards qualification for next season's Champions League]. Now we look forward to Wednesday."
The best that can be said of Stoke was that (a) their plans to attack were destroyed by Ricardo Fuller's ugly retaliation on Branislav Ivanovic and (b) Tony Pulis set an example for managers to follow with an honest and severe acceptance of his own player's failing. "Ric was stupid," he said. "He snaps easily and, if you look at his record, he's got that in him. His reaction was not acceptable."
Chelsea: CECH 6/10; IVANOVIC 6; CAHILL 6; TERRY 7; COLE 6; MIKEL 7; MEIRELES 5; LAMPARD 6; RAMIRES 6; DROGBA 7; KALOU 6
Stoke: BEGOVIC 7; WILSON 6; SHAWCROSS 6; HUTH 6; WILKINSON 6; DIAO 5; WHITEHEAD 6; SHOTTON 7; WALTERS 6; JONES 6; FULLER 4
Scorer: Chelsea Drogba 68. Substitutes: Chelsea Mata 8 (Meireles, 38), Luiz 6 (Ivanovic, h-t), Sturridge 5 (Mikel, 67). Stoke Palacios 6 (Diao, 51), Upson 6 (Wilson, 51), Jerome 6 (Jones, 60). Booked: Chelsea Mikel. Stoke Diao, Wilson. Sent-off Stoke Fuller (25). Man of the match Mata. Match rating 6/10. Possession: Chelsea 65% Stoke 35%. Attempts on target: Chelsea 11 Stoke 3. Referee A Marriner (W Midlands). Attendance 40,945Reuse content