Saturday 21 April 2018

Di Matteo demands 'perfect' performance in must-win tie

Paul Kelso

In substance, if not style, Chelsea's defence of the Champions League is being mounted in the manner of last season's triumph. Three games into the group stage and the European champions, despite some sublime domestic form, face a must-win fixture at Stamford Bridge.

Shakhtar Donetsk arrive at Stamford Bridge having outscored and outplayed Chelsea in Ukraine a fortnight ago. With a trip to Turin to come -- and Juventus expected to consolidate their position with victory against group makeweights FC Njordsjaelland -- anything other than victory for Chelsea will make the knockout stage look remote.

Roberto di Matteo's side are well qualified for the task, having spent most of their time in Europe last season with their backs against the wall, winning the title with a string of resolute performances when the margin for error was minimal.

They had to beat Valencia in their final game to escape the group before the round of 16 brought a fateful encounter with Napoli. A 3-1 defeat in Italy cost Andre Villas-Boas his job, the 4-1 win in the return at Stamford Bridge secured Di Matteo his.

The rest of the campaign, including the epic scrape past Barcelona and the remarkable final in Munich, were born of defiance and have left Stamford Bridge decorated with banners declaring it the home of the European champions.

The bunting would droop a little should Chelsea lose tonight, but Di Matteo says last season's experiences give him confidence, even if it will take a "perfect game" to win.

"There are some comparisons certainly to last season, when we had must-win games," he said.

"Fortunately we have players who have been through that before. We have to play the perfect game to beat Shakhtar, but we're strong at home, and we'll be fired up for this game to win it."

The coach is adamant that despite familiar circumstances, he will not abandon the new style that has transformed the team from doughty to delightful.

The introduction of Eden Hazard and Oscar, scorer of the goal of the campaign so far in the opening group game against Juventus, has made Chelsea easier to watch than they are to love, and Di Matteo is clear there will be no retreat to old ways despite adversity.

He blamed the defensive frailties exposed in conceding a two-goal start at home to Juventus on concentration, rather than the new style of play.

"We've had some individual mistakes but, when we're fully focused, we're a very good team."

If Chelsea are to win they will have to do it without one of the stalwarts of the 2011/12 campaign, Ashley Cole, who misses the game with a hamstring strain.

Ryan Bertrand, a more callow veteran of Munich, will take his place, and concerns over David Luiz and the team's creative hub, Juan Mata, have eased, with both expected to play having come through training last night.

Also returning, to first team and captaincy, is John Terry, who will make his first home appearance after a four-match ban for racially abusing Anton Ferdinand.


Terry is the totem both of Chelsea's defiance and the scandal that has swirled around the club for more than a year, but Di Matteo is unapologetic about selecting him, even as a fresh racism inquiry looms, this one instigated by Chelsea after allegations that Mark Clattenburg abused Jon Obi Mikel.

It is is an indication that Di Matteo respects the threat posed by Shakhtar. Managed by Mircea Lucescu, who led Besiktas to a 2-0 win over Chelsea here in 2003, they have won all 14 domestic league games this season, drew in Turin, and could have beaten Chelsea by more than the odd goal in three having scored early in Ukraine.

"We'll have to be at our best," Di Matteo said. "The way they went to Turin and played showed what kind of confidence they have.

"But we have a strong, winning mentality and also the experience of playing and performing in big games like this. That helps them not feel the pressure too much. And we also have good players in our ranks.

"When they play at the best of their ability, we're a very strong team." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Chelsea v Shakhtar Donetsk,

Live, Sky Sports 3, 7.45

Irish Independent

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