Old Lady leaves Chelsea on the brink as gamble backfires badly
Sam Wallace Champions League Group E
Published 21/11/2012 | 05:00
It has been only six months since the miracle of Munich, but after the tumult of Turin that magical day in the history of Chelsea must feel like a very long time ago for Roberto Di Matteo.
Barring a scenario in which Shakhtar Donetsk beat Juventus in the Ukraine in two weeks' time and Di Matteo's team beat Nordsjaelland, then Chelsea will be out the group stages of the Champions League come next month.
They barely need reminding that they will be the first defending champions to exit at that stage in the history of the new format competition.
It is not implausible that Shakhtar, who lead the group with 10 points, will beat the Italian champions but both sides will be aware that they only require a draw for them both to progress.
Thankfully, we have come a long way from the days of stitch-ups and dodgy pacts on European nights but Chelsea know that their future in this competition is hanging on a prayer.
With a team that had won just one in six matches before last night, Di Matteo was inevitably forced into the biggest change of all – leaving out Fernando Torres.
The problem was the alternatives. There is not one in the squad. Torres came on for the last 20 minutes and made precious little difference but by then the goals from Fabio Quagliarella and Arturo Vidal had put the game beyond their reach before Sebastian Giovinco's late third.
Unfortunately for Di Matteo, the wonders he achieved in last season's competition only count for so much in the volatile atmosphere of his club.
He does not deserve to be concerned about his future but given the ruthlessness with which his predecessors have been disposed of, he would be foolish to think that his position is unaffected.
With Andrea Pirlo passing a young Chelsea team into submission, and the excellent Vidal influential, Chelsea were crushed in a fashion that is rare for them. In the past they might have dug in and caught their opposition cold on the counter-attack with Didier Drogba, but Drogba is gone and he has not been replaced.
Di Matteo had made the only choice a rational judge could make by dropping Torres from the team. Only at Chelsea would leaving out a centre-forward who has scored just six in 18 competitive appearances for the team be considered controversial, but at this club special rules apply.
It has, by any standards, been a run in the team of remarkable indulgence given Chelsea's recent situation. On last night's official Uefa team sheet, the Chelsea formation was given as a five-man defence but when they settled into their shape, Cesar Azpilicueta occupied the right side of the three-man group in a 4-2-3-1 system. Eden Hazard took the role formerly occupied by Torres with Oscar in the No 10 role and Juan Mata on the left.
There were times at the start of the first half when it looked like Chelsea might cave in and they came to rely, as ever, on the presence of Petr Cech in goal in the early stages. He blocked a back-post shot from Stephan Lichtsteiner with his knee in the fourth minute. Later he got down to push a shot from Claudio Marchisio wide of the near post.
The trick was to prevent themselves from being engulfed by Juventus in those early stages and Chelsea achieved that. The front four worked hard to create chances on the counter-attack, especially Oscar who may give the ball away at times but has the confidence and the talent to try the difficult option.
His run forward from left to right on nine minutes, picking his way through a crowd of Juventus defenders, was the best moment for Chelsea in the first half. As he reached the edge of the area he unselfishly picked out Hazard in the right channel, who took a touch and then hit a shot that Gianluigi Buffon managed to block. It would be pushing it to say that Chelsea were comfortable but they had come through something of a storm when finally Juventus broke through on 38 minutes. Andrea Pirlo had been conscientiously pulling the strings in midfield all evening when he got possession yet again after Ramires slipped.
The midfielder hit a shot that Cech would have had covered were it not for the deft touch of Quagliarella to change the direction of the ball and beat the goalkeeper.
In the moments that followed Chelsea could have really lost the plot but Ashley Cole got them off the hook with a sharp clearance from the touchline.
Even in the last six minutes of the half there was a chance for Mata when Oscar crossed from the right and the Chelsea man seemed to lose his nerve with Buffon bearing down on him.
A goal at that stage would have radically changed the balance of the game. Instead, Juventus resumed the game in control and just after the hour they scored the goal that killed the game.
In that 15 minutes after the break, Chelsea had created precious little and, except for a free-kick in a promising position that Mata hit straight into the defensive wall, there was little to remember from their attacking play.
By contrast, the menace from Juventus grew all the time with Cech only just shepherding Quagliarella wide of the goal in the 59th minute. Shortly afterwards, the Chile international Vidal scored with a shot from Kwadwo Asamoah's cross from the left side. His strike took a critical deflection off Ramires on its way in and the feeling was that Cech would have had the shot covered if it had stayed true.
But Chelsea did not look any better in attack and Sebastian Giovinco broke free late on and with Cech ludicrously far off his line, the Juventus substitute scored. Chelsea had been well beaten.