As expected our opponents in the Champions League semi-final will be Chelsea after they beat Benfica 2-1 at Stamford Bridge tonight. This gives us a repeat of the 2009 semi-final which was decided with Andres Iniesta’s injury time strike, only this time the first game on Wednesday 18th April will take place in London with the return game at Camp Nou on the following Tuesday. We should not forget that sandwiched between the two games we will receive Real Madrid, on Saturday 21st April, in a game that could still decide La Liga.
Chelsea have had a difficult season in the English Premier League. Young coach Andre Villas-Boas arrived last summer hailed as a tactical wizard after his success at Porto. However, his attempts to rejuvenate an aging team came up against obstacles. Characters such as John Terry and Frank Lampard carry a lot of weight in the dressing room, and the manner in which Lampard was dropped to the bench without an explanation was not seen favourably. However, it is also rumoured that some players were hostile to Villas-Boas from the start as they did not approve of his new training methods. Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich claimed that players were responsible for his decision to sack Villas-Boas and replace him with Roberto Di Matteo, but you have to ask yourself: who is in charge here? and if you want to back your coach, then back him and don’t sack him. Sounds like a big mistake to me.
Chelsea’s league form has not improved greatly with Di Matteo but Chelsea have progressed to two semi-finals. The FA Cup semi-final against Tottenham is programmed to be played on Sunday 15th April, just three days before the first leg with Barça, though I imagine it is possible the English FA will allow the Tottenham game to be brought forward to the Saturday. On the following Saturday (21st April) Chelsea play at Arsenal in the league and as things stand now they are going to need the points to maintain their challenge for a top four finish to gain a Champions League place next season. Chelsea are currently in 5th place, five points behind both Arsenal and Tottenham.
Chelsea will want to win their domestic games against local rivals but for their older players the Champions League near misses of the past will no doubt be an extra motivation. Lampard, Terry, Drogba, Essien Cole and Cech have all been very close. Losing on penalties to Manchester United in the 2008 final must still haunt them, and then to go so close only to lose to Barça in a somewhat controversial semi-final the following year may have left some Chelsea players banging their heads against a wall. They are going to want revenge, that goes without saying. However, they are coming up against a Barça side that is now well practiced in these big games, and with Leo Messi in such irresistible form, there may be some Chelsea players in need of years of therapy after this year’s contest.