There are many managers for whose careers Stamford has proved a Bridge too far. Gianluca Vialli – last seen in 2002 being sacked by Watford. Claudio Ranieri – lost to the Faroe Islands before being fired by Greece. Rafael Benitez, Avram Grant, and of course poor André Villas-Boas – being the Chelsea manager can be quite a harrowing experience. And then there came Roberto di Matteo. The only man in the Blues’ history to have won a Champions League (in 2012), he lasted until November of that same year before Roman Abramovich decided that enough was, well, not quite enough. Having been out of work since, the affable Italian rocked up at Schalke 04 in early October. And he had not started too badly, either, with four wins in seven. Di Matteo had won more than half his games in charge of Milton Keynes Dons, and was not far shy of the same mark in his period managing West Bromwich Albion before taking on the Chelsea job. He took a 100 per cent home record with Schalke into tonight. Within two minutes, it was clear that that would not last, and by 78 minutes, when Ramires nodded in Chelsea’s fifth, he could barely watch. Needless to say, Di Matteo could be a roaring success in the Bundesliga. For tonight, though, the Chelsea curse claims yet another managerial victim.
Chelsea came into this game needing just two points to qualify for the knockout stages of the Champions League. For all their outstanding start to their Premier League campaign, they are still a long way from a similar position of comfort. And so looking to get qualification confirmed early, José Mourinho, seven of whose players have started all 12 of the Blues’ league games to date, picked those same seven in his team for this game. Which gives rise to an interesting conundrum. Is it better to take the benefits of selection consistency across the board and accept the increased risk of injury? Or was this an opportunity to give some of his stars a rest, with the potential sacrifice of cohesion? Tonight, Mourinho was clearly only going one way. There was an intensity and purpose to Chelsea’s performance from the start, to the extent that Diego Costa should probably have scored even before Terry’s second-minute opener. They did not sit back, even after Willian’s second just before the half hour which seemed to have sealed the win, and with it the group. What this season has showed so far is that this Chelsea team is a well-drilled machine; but at some stage, wear and tear will mandate rotation. Hazard took a knock at 3-0. He seemed to shake it off, but did he need to be on the pitch? There were no substitutions at all until halfway through the second half despite the Blues being in consummate control at half time, and it took until the fifth goal had gone in for Fàbregas to earn a rest. While the core of this team continues to feature, Chelsea will be extremely difficult to stop. This, though, was a chance to test out their depth.
If there was one defining characteristic from Chelsea’s Champions League victory in 2012, it was the rearguard actions in the latter stages of the competition that mixed the heroic and the downright implausible in equal measure. Perhaps Di Matteo was looking to take inspiration from those days with his new employers. Albeit missing key players, not least the highly-coveted Julian Draxler, Schalke conceded early ground with a formation which featured a nominal back four but, in truth, contained at least seven players whose natural instinct is defensive. That is all very well if you have something to defend; it can backfire horribly when you are forced to chase the game by conceding early. The German side had barely touched the ball before they fell behind, and having come in with such a defensive mindset, they looked disjointed as they tried to push forward. There were undoubtedly moments of attacking promise at 1-0, and indeed again after they had fallen two down, but the approach which they had brought to the game was always noticeable again in the speed with which they subsequently fell back after losing the ball. And there are many teams who struggle to break down defensively-minded opposition, but sadly for Schalke, this season’s Chelsea are not one of them.
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