Video: Terry will rise above furore -- Di Matteo
NO MATTER how much Chelsea want their entertaining football to do the talking, the subject of racism and John Terry will still be at the forefront here tonight.
All eyes will once again be on the Chelsea captain as he returns to lead the side against Shakhtar Donetsk. And his timing could not be more awkward.
The 31-year-old defender served the first of his four-game ban for racially abusing Queen's Park Rangers' Anton Ferdinand against Tottenham last Saturday.
However, he is free to play in the Champions League and his return to Chelsea's starting line-up coincides with the beginning of Fare's Action Week across Europe, which highlights their cause against discrimination.
Children will walk out beside the Chelsea players wearing 'Unite Against Racism' T-shirts and Terry will put on an armband which states the same message.
The fact he is making this statement exactly a year to the day since the ugly confrontation with Ferdinand took place at Loftus Road provides another telling twist to proceedings.
Terry continues to point to the not guilty verdict that was read out at the end of a high-profile court case in July and will argue this is a chance for him to send out the right sort of message.
Still, such a sight could be hard for some in the game to stomach, especially those who feel that the English FA and Chelsea, who fined Terry only two weeks' wages, have been too lenient in their treatment of Terry.
However, coach Roberto di Matteo is not perturbed about what people think of his selection policy or whether Terry's performance may be adversely affected by all the negative attention.
Di Matteo said: "I've never been concerned about picking him. He's been able to focus on the games and that's what the players love to do, playing football and it's good for them that they can focus on that.
"With good performances and good behaviour in the future he should still be looked upon as the leader for our club."
When asked if he was confident the centre-half would be able to play at the same level under the circumstances, he replied emphatically: "Yes, absolutely."
Terry's chances of doing just that have also been helped by taking the unusual step of playing 45 minutes for the reserves in a friendly against Arsenal last Wednesday.
There should not be a problem mentally either. Terry is no stranger to controversy and has often excelled when the cameras have been focused firmly upon him.
Bizarrely, Terry appears to thrive, rather than be diminished, on such occasions.
"Everybody's different from that point of view, dealing with issues," Di Matteo added.
"But what is common for players is that, even if they have family problems or some kind of issues outside in their private life, they tend to be able to focus on the football because it kind of just helps them."
It is hard not to feel some sympathy for Di Matteo, who has had the issue overshadow not only the preparations for this game, but his achievements for the seven months that he has been in charge at Stamford Bridge. Last season he claimed the FA Cup and Champions League, and this term the team are playing with flair as they sit at the top of the Premier League.
But most of the talk still surrounds his captain and it is an added pressure to what is an already intense job.
How does he cope? "You kind of get into a rhythm. I've had a good baptism, I have to say, from the day I took over last season. You just deal with the pressure."
No English team has ever won in Donetsk and Shakhtar boast such a daunting record this season -- 15 games undefeated, with 14 victories -- that Di Matteo's sleep-deprived predecessors Andre Villas-Boas and Carlo Ancelotti would have been struggling to shut their eyes in the build-up to a game Chelsea can ill afford to lose.
The only smear on Shakhtar's formidable record was the creditable draw against Juventus in Turin, and the history books will not make palatable reading for Chelsea.
Arsenal have lost here twice and manager Mircea Lucescu has not lost on home turf since last November, but Di Matteo insists he is not facing the same headaches that turned Ancelotti and Villas-Boas into virtual insomniacs.
That's not surprising, really, when you consider Chelsea's own start to the season that sees them perched atop the Premier League.
"Shakhtar are a very good side and I'm not sure everyone is fully aware of that because people don't know too much about the Ukrainian league and don't feel it's as strong as some European leagues.
"But they've a good record in European competition as well and they've shown in the games against Nordsjaelland and Juventus, especially in Turin, what a good team they are," the manager said.
Chelsea lead Shakhtar on goal difference in Group E but with Juventus expected to comprehensively beat FC Nordsjaelland in Denmark tonight, a defeat could be critical for Di Matteo, whose team travel to Italy next month.
Hopes of a valuable result will significantly depend on whether Juan Mata can extend his excellent start to the season.
Mata, who scored twice against Spurs at the weekend, said: "We have the character to never give up, no matter what the situation. We're going to try and play as we have done over the last two months.
"Last year was one of the best in Chelsea's history but, hopefully, the best is still yet to come." (© Independent News Service)
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