Roberto di Matteo did a fine impression of Jose Mourinho in orchestrating Chelsea’s fist leg victory over Benfica last night.
The Blues were outstanding in defence as they ran out 1-0 winners in the Estadio da Luz and set themselves up nicely for the return game at Stamford Bridge next week.
Salomon Kalou scored the only goal, tapping in after Ramires and Fernando Torres combined speedily down the right, with the Spaniard crossing nicely for the Ivory Coast man unmarked in the six-yard box.
It was a impressive win over a side who very good at home in Europe and had not lost there in their last ten matches against European opposition.
Add to this the fact that Chelsea had not won on the five previous occasions they had played away from home.
Di Matteo was given the unenviable task of stabilising a squad that was struggling for form and had some senior players struggling for power with a new manager who wanted to shake things up.
Many thought the Italian had made a massive mistake leaving Frank Lampard, Michael Essien and Didier Drogba out of his starting line up.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, though, and it now looks like it was the perfect decision, with all Di Matteo’s tactics being vindicated.
There was more than a hint of Mourinho in how the Blues back four set out their stall against an eager Benfica attack.
John Obi Mikel lived up to his reputation and barely left the area in front of the back four, tackling effectively and moving the ball on economically without too much fuss.
Raul Meireles is a very disciplined midfielder and was able to supress many of his attacking urges to maintain the shape of the midfield – all in a volatile seeting where his every touch was booed due to his association with Benfica’s fierce rivals Porto.
Meireles and Mikel’s tactical discipline, added to their effective retention of possession, allowed the others to express themselves more creatively.
Juan Mata was one of these, but the star of the show was Benfica’s former midfielder; Ramires.
The Brazilian’s performance was full of energy and he didn’t stop running all night, creating momentum for Chelsea counter attacks to flourish and exploit the intelligent running of Torres.
This counter-attacking system was reliant on the back four being stout and resolute to repel a nimble and creative home side attack.
Nicolas Gaitan, and Pablo Aimar are extremely effective in creating space around the area, while also providing good deliveries for the muscular Oscar Cardozo as the lone forward.
There was definitely an echo of former boss Mourinho in the way that Chelsea’s plan concentrated on solid defence and attempted to utilise their power and pace to exploit the opposition when the ball was turned over.
The deployment of the hard working Kalou was crucial to this game plan being successful, as he has more of an inclination to track back and is also more direct when attacking than someone like Sturridge.
Kalou has become a peripheral figure at Stamford Bridge of late, but this display will not do him any harm with regards to suitors for when he make his expected exit from the club this summer.
Di Matteo has made the crucial decision to go for a pragmatic approach in his time at the Chelsea helm and veer sharply away from the high-line, pressing play ideology that sacked Andre Villas-Boas failed so miserably with.
This is a wise decision as it is probably the only way they are going to salvage something from a season that looked on the brink of complete implosion a few weeks ago.
Concentrating on keeping it tight at the back, taking few risks, relying on power and pace to grind out victories? They are all familiar methods.
Mourinho’s way to win was based around overpowering the opposition and using quick breaks to establish territory further up the field and, when it worked, the Chelsea of five years ago would seem to just bulldozer all in their path.
It was a predominantly physical approach but the resources at hand for ‘The Special One’ meant he was able to go out and find players with imposing physicality has well as a high level of technical ability.
The likes of Didier Drogba, Michael Essien and Salomon Kalou were typical Mourinho signings.
Di Matteo’s adoption of similar tactics to Mourinho should also endear him to the players, who had proved either stubborn or unable when asked by Villas-Boas to play in a different way.
If Chelsea manage to pull off the impossible and win the Champions League or the less difficult FA Cup, it will be done by the foundations set from the current Real Madrid manager.
It looks as though Mourinho’s presence is being felt in more than just text messages to his old players.
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