Two games down, two games to go. The great Chelsea odyssey of four must-win matches in the space of 10 days is halfway done and, thus far, it has been an overwhelming success. First Tottenham were dispatched at Wembley, then Barcelona were beaten. Now the question for Roberto Di Matteo is how far can he push this team in the next five days?
Chelsea face Arsenal at the Emirates tomorrow lunchtime and it would be fair to say that winning an FA Cup semi-final and beating the best club team in the world gives the away team rather more momentum than that 2-1 home defeat to Wigan Athletic will have given Arsenal. Arsène Wenger's team have had half the action that Chelsea have seen in the last five days but they have had twice the rest.
In many respects, tomorrow's game has much further reaching consequences for the club's long-term stability than success in the FA Cup, or even beating Barcelona on Wednesday night. While they are only 90 minutes from a Champions League final, Chelsea's best chance of being in the competition next season is still surely by winning their remaining five league games and pipping Tottenham and Newcastle to fourth place.
It poses some awkward questions for Di Matteo over tomorrow's team. Can he really afford to push Didier Drogba for a third successive 90 minutes after the 34-year-old worked wonders against Spurs and Barça? Or look at it another way, can he expect Fernando Torres to be equally effective against Arsenal in a game that Chelsea really need to win?
There is something of the Zen master about Di Matteo, a man who appears to conduct his press conferences in a state of calm reflection. Even he acknowledged on Wednesday night that he could not simply keep asking his core of most experienced players to force through the season's objectives.
Di Matteo said that there was "a good chance that new fresh players come in [against Arsenal]". "They deserve to be in the team as well. I had to leave a few out [against Barça], not because they deserved it but because I have to make decisions. I'm minded to give a few of them a start on Saturday."
The priority when Roman Abramovich appointed Di Matteo "interim first-team coach" on 4 March was always qualification for next season's Champions League. But then the Chelsea owner did not know that his club would be going into a semi-final second leg with a one-goal lead on the defending champions. It is unthinkable that Drogba will not start at the Nou Camp on Tuesday given the effect he seems to have on the Barça temperament.
Equally, Ashley Cole – still carrying an ankle problem – John Terry, Frank Lampard, Ramires and Juan Mata have all played all, or nearly all, of the 180 minutes against Spurs and Barça. The likes of Torres, Michael Essien, Florent Malouda and Daniel Sturridge have had to wait their turn. The question for Di Matteo is whether they are good enough to beat an Arsenal team who have won seven of their last nine league games.
Rotating the squad in a congested end-of-season was always going to be a problem. Excluding the possibility of the Champions League final, Chelsea will have to play seven games in 23 days starting tomorrow. Chelsea have been victims of their own success of late. Wednesday's result means that they have to play their strongest possible side and go for it at the Nou Camp on Tuesday.
Petr Cech insisted that Chelsea's squad could handle the demands of the next 10 days. "We have almost everybody fit so we can rotate the team and it will be our advantage. This is a massive game against Arsenal, because we need to reach the Champions League spot. It's always hard to manage everything as well. But they have the Clasico as well. So maybe that's an advantage. We have a massive game, they have a massive game. So we both need to manage that. Who's going to do it better? Let's see."
The problem for Chelsea is that, as with all good sides, there is an obvious first string of players. Salomon Kalou will surely start tomorrow having been left out of the side to face Barcelona, Sturridge may well get a game too and if Torres is not in the starting XI then he might wonder when he will play again. Oriol Romeu, the forgotten man who has not played since 31 January, may also be a contender. But to a large extent, Di Matteo will be placing his faith in the understudies.
Cech said on Wednesday that the Chelsea way was to plough on regardless. "I played 14 months with both broken shoulders," he said. "And I think sometimes, how did I manage to do that? I did. And because I wanted to be part of the team and win titles, I didn't want to rest. There's only two ways. You will reach the point where you can't do it any more but if you still can do it and your head is ready to accept the pain then you can do it."
Terry has broken ribs, lest we forget, although it is hard to imagine him sitting out either of the next two games. After Tuesday's second leg in Spain, Chelsea have five days' rest and then another run of four games in 10 days – Queen's Park Rangers and Newcastle in the league followed by Liverpool twice, in the FA Cup final and the league. None of them could be regarded as low priority.
Ideally, Di Matteo will want to rest tired legs and bring in fresh players. But, as the important games have arrived, he has hit upon a winning team good enough to beat the best there is, and the temptation will be to push them on as far as he can.Reuse content