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Di Matteo fights to save Blues' status

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Chelsea coach Roberto Di Matteo with team captain John Terry at the press conference ahead of tonight's Champions League clash with Napoli

Chelsea coach Roberto Di Matteo with team captain John Terry at the press conference ahead of tonight's Champions League clash with Napoli

Chelsea coach Roberto Di Matteo with team captain John Terry at the press conference ahead of tonight's Champions League clash with Napoli

When, in September 2000, Roberto di Matteo sustained the triple fracture to his leg that would end his career, the Chelsea team he played for were just establishing themselves in European football.

Two years earlier they had won the European Cup Winners' Cup. They then beat Real Madrid to win the European Super Cup and in 1999 they qualified for the Champions League for the first time.

It is 11 years since the UEFA Cup game against St Gallen that finished Di Matteo's career, and the club has gone through one of the most profound transformations of the modern era.

But the Chelsea team of which Di Matteo finds himself in charge against Napoli in the Champions League tonight is one that is fighting to save its reputation in Europe, rather than to build it.

Ten days into Di Matteo's temporary reign, he has two wins and two clean sheets. Yesterday at Stamford Bridge he sat alongside club captain John Terry at his press conference ahead of tonight's second-leg knockout game. That alone told you how much emphasis Di Matteo has placed on solidarity since taking over from Andre Villas-Boas.

It was Didier Drogba who was alongside Villas-Boas before the 3-1 defeat in Naples. Yesterday only the captain would do.

In seasons gone by you would have described this as Chelsea's moment of truth, so crucial has success in the Champions League been to the club.

And should England's last representatives in the competition bow out tonight there will, once again, be that sense of gloom at the club that has accompanied every one of Chelsea's failures to capture the one trophy that has eluded them.

But the chaos of Chelsea's season has been so great that the terms have changed. Realistically, the challenge is not to win the Champions League; it is to salvage something after nine months in which a manager has been sacked, there have been seven defeats in the league and the team lie fifth, three points outside the Champions League places.

If they cannot stay in the Champions League then they must, at the very least, ensure that they qualify for it next season. And, as they cannot challenge for the title, they must try to win the FA Cup.

The caretaker manager has held a number of individual meetings with his players over the last few days. Di Matteo knows that any discussion of rebuilding has to be put to one side in order to address the more immediate issues.

If they go out of the competition in the first knockout round, they will have to beat Leicester City on Sunday for a place in the FA Cup semi-finals and try to beat Manchester City in the league next Wednesday.

Di Matteo cannot share Villas-Boas' preoccupation with a long-term project. He has to rescue what he can. As Arsenal did against Milan last week, Chelsea must put up a fight tonight. They must at least win the game, but if they do not win the tie it will not be as damaging as failing to qualify for the competition next season.

It was the first leg in Naples three weeks ago where the endgame for Villas-Boas truly began. Twelve days later he was sacked.

In Italy, when Villas-Boas left out Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole and Michael Essien, he could not call upon the injured Terry, who returned for Saturday's win over Stoke, after an absence stretching back to January.

NECESSITY

Di Matteo now has a full complement of players from which to select and it is telling that Chelsea have kept a clean sheet in the last five games that Terry has started. There is clearly a necessity to refresh and rebuild, but at 31, Terry remains the best defender at the club.

He will have to be at his best if Chelsea are to stop the golden attacking trio of Ezequiel Lavezzi, Marek Hamsik and Edinson Cavani.

In the past, Napoli would have been regarded as relatively inconsequential opponents for Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. The Blues, after all, have beaten the likes of Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus and Rafael Benitez's Liverpool at home in the Champions League in the last eight seasons.

But things have changed and tonight Chelsea start two goals behind. (© Independent News Service)