Di Matteo and old guard in one last chance
THERE is a sense of end of empire to Chelsea; a sense that this might be the last tilt at the Champions League for this group of players.
Wells of frustration have grown throughout this campaign, even if Chelsea are the last British club standing in European competition, but it took 33-year-old Frank Lampard -- the source of much vexation, particularly under former manager Andre Villas-Boas -- to deliver the damning assessment.
"We're not as good as we used to be," the midfielder said. That was directed at Chelsea's home league form, following Saturday's goalless draw against Tottenham Hotspur, but it will resonate, especially as the club go into this quarter-final tie away to Benfica with the club's hierarchy still apparently having an appetite for change.
There is also a sense that Chelsea, and that so-called 'old guard', gave so much in the astonishing comeback against Napoli in the previous round that their tanks may be running dry.
It is a view that has been aired by the defender-turned-television pundit Gary Neville. "Gary always has an opinion, hasn't he?" stand-in manager Roberto Di Matteo said. But Lampard seemed to agree. "We had the high of Napoli," he admitted. "Then we got beaten by Manchester City and now we need to be up again.
"Chelsea should be in the top four. No disrespect to the other top-five clubs but, with the ability we have, we should be in there. It's five points and the gap has been bigger than that. It's up to us now to get ourselves right for Benfica and the league games coming up."
Di Matteo was quizzed on the vice-captain's comments and there was a ready admission that this has been a "difficult" season.
"The numbers say that, so there's no point in denying it," he added. "But we have the quality in this team and many good players. I still think this Chelsea team is a very good team."
That is what is so fascinating about Chelsea right now. Is there a misreading of the situation, a wrong perception that this group of players have gone as far as they can? Or will tonight's encounter be the last one on foreign soil in the Champions League for this campaign and the next?
Chelsea have finished in the top four for nine successive seasons. The likelihood now is that their best chance of remaining in the competition is to win it.
Either way, there is the scent of change. "It's not the time to be talking about the evolution or revolution of Chelsea," Di Matteo said, understandably, inside the Stadium of Light. "Now it's the time for us to channel our energy into the games we have to play. When the time is right, in the summer when the season is over and done, the people at the club will make the decisions which are the best for the club."
The likelihood is that he will be among those who depart at the end of this season but he will want to do so with his reputation enhanced. Coming through the Napoli tie, alone, will achieve that but despite the brouhaha over whether Chelsea are in danger of showing Benfica a lack of respect, both clubs know they could have drawn more formidable opponents.
"The season has been very difficult," Di Matteo said.
"Everybody seems to have an opinion, and they have that right, but I disagree. I believe in my team, my squad, my players. I don't think we're a weak team, not at all. We have, still, many games to play in the Premier League to reach fourth, and two games in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. It looked a little gloomier two weeks ago, so we're pleased to be here."
3BENFICA v CHELSEA, Tonight, Live TV3/Sky Sports 2 (KO 7.45)