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Di Matteo banking on Chelsea old guard to handle heat of Nou Camp cauldron

Chelsea fly to Barcelona at lunchtime today smarting at the accusation that they constitute some sort of senior citizens' tour.

Where some critics see 'old', Chelsea see 'experienced'. The years of footballing wisdom accumulated by John Terry, Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard will be vital at the House of Hurt that is the Nou Camp tomorrow.

Chelsea's interim first-team coach, Roberto Di Matteo, smiled wryly when mention was made that "no one talks of Scholes and Giggs being past it".

Giggs (38) and Scholes (37) have helped steer Manchester United to the top of the Premier League.

"Thank you very much,'' said Di Matteo. "We're in the final of the FA Cup and the semi-finals of the Champions League yet we seem to be 'the worst team in England'. That's the way it feels sometimes.''

His Arsenal counterpart, Arsene Wenger, believes Chelsea have a real chance of protecting that 1-0 first-leg lead.

"It is far from impossible,'' said Wenger, whose team lost there last year. "The Barcelona we have seen the other night is not the Barcelona of last year.

"Messi looks a bit tired. He still is dangerous, even tired. They managed to block a few shots from him on Wednesday, but usually he has such a short back-lift it is difficult to do that.

"However, he is not as sharp as he was before and if they defend like they did the other night they have a chance."

Even a purist like Wenger understood Chelsea's conservative tactics . "I believe Inter Milan beat them that way and nobody took away any credit from Inter Milan,'' added the Arsenal manager.

"You want them to win. If they played like that for the whole season it would more difficult to understand. In a cup game, you can understand.''

Chelsea's belief will become more understandable if Didier Drogba shakes off a knee problem. Di Matteo saluted John Terry on Saturday, following the captain's excellent display alongside Gary Cahill in frustrating Robin van Persie.

"It's worked well with me and JT,'' added Cahill. "When I first played with him at England I got the feeling it was quite a natural partnership. He prefers the left, I prefer the right. It might not be that much of a big deal but it means you slot in nicely.''

For Cahill, Saturday provided useful preparation. "When you come up against the likes of Van Persie, who's been one of the best strikers in world football this season, it was great experience and practice moving into the Barcelona game because we're coming up against some world-class players,'' said Cahill. Along with Cahill's determination, Terry's experience and fortitude was particularly important as Saturday was Chelsea's third game in six days.

Arsenal, missing Mikel Arteta's subtle creativity, also looked jaded in a poor match.

"The demands are crazy, physically and mentally,'' continued Di Matteo. "We've got a lot of experienced players and that helps us come through games.

"It's strength of character, the spirit of the group and the spirit of sacrifice to keep this positive momentum going. You can see the pride of this group, the drive and ambition to get up and fight every opposition we face.''

Amidst all the talk of the old guard, Di Matteo did not overlook the club's teenagers, who thrashed Blackburn Rovers 4-0 in the first leg of the FA Youth Cup final last Friday.

"Many have already trained with us this season,'' said Di Matteo. "It's too early to say whether they'll develop into Chelsea players, but there are a few prospects who are very exciting.

"The club is working very hard to develop players in-house and get more players like JT, Ryan (Bertrand) and (Josh) McEachran who have come through the ranks."

Bertrand impressed at left-back against Arsenal, keeping Theo Walcott at bay. The winger eventually succumbed to a hamstring injury which will keep him out for "21 days, minimum'', according to Wenger. Having pulled up, Walcott determinedly but unwisely decided to play on and soon hobbled off. He had almost created a goal, lifting in a free-kick that Van Persie turned against a post.

Arteta's absence was noted by Thomas Vermaelen. "He is a leader on the pitch, outside the pitch. He has a lot of experience; it's a big loss that he's not on the pitch any more.''

Despite Newcastle's phenomenal run, Arsenal rightly remain favourites for third place.

Wenger, however, is taking nothing for granted. "We go to Stoke to West Brom, no easy places, and play Norwich at home,'' said Wenger. "I think two out of the next three we need to win." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent