Defeat would leave Chelsea on the brink

Tue, Nov 20, 2012, 00:00

Juventus v Chelsea(Juventus Stadium, Turin, 7.45pm UTV, Setanta Sports 1): Roberto Di Matteo can appear phlegmatic at the worst of times, though the five o'clock shadow he sported en route to Italy betrayed a man with too much on his mind.The season has yet to stretch into a fifth month but, already, Chelsea are stumbling, leaving the management to pluck positives from livid dressingroom inquests into sloppy and unacceptable underachievement.

There were raised voices at the Hawthorns on Saturday, when their winless Premier League sequence was extended to four matches and suggested a team in retreat. "We demand a lot of ourselves, and expect a lot," said Di Matteo. "We were very disappointed and frustrated. We all want to see a reaction."

One is required in Turin tonight where defeat to Juventus, the team clear at the top of Serie A, would leave Chelsea on the brink of becoming the first Champions League holders to fail to escape the group stage in their defence.

Last year, when progress had initially been threatened by a slack away record in the group and was then regularly tested during the slug-fest of the knockout, the London club had been driven forward by fighters. John Terry and Frank Lampard had mustered those around them. Didier Drogba had rediscovered his battering ram best. Ashley Cole and Branislav Ivanovic had refused to wilt, and the older heads had bolstered the newer personnel to conjure their miracle in Munich six months ago. Their success felt fated.

Now, though, the onus is on others to summon the response. Leaders are being sought if this team is to shrug itself out of its stutter. "But we still have plenty of experienced players in the team," insisted Di Matteo. "Petr Cech is there. We have Ivanovic, Mikel John Obi, and Juan Mata. There are plenty of players who can be leaders."

Yet their combined efforts could not beat Swansea, Liverpool or West Bromwich Albion in recent weeks. Should they shrink tonight, then the defence could be over.

Di Matteo has suffered by being denied a regular back-line combination, the loss of Terry through injury, suspension and then injury again denying him a lynchpin.

Yet it is the forward line that draws the focus. While the watching world gasped at the conveyor-belt of chances Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar generated in the autumn, thrilling at the sheer brilliance of their dazzling inter-play, their inclusion has sometimes come at the expense of the team's overall balance.

The biggest sense of deflation has surrounded the man that trio were supposed to supply. Fernando Torres deflected Andriy Pyatov's attempted clearance into the net a fortnight ago, but that remains his only reward since the first week in October.

There remains industry to the Spaniard's game, but too often his runs are predictable. The jeers that accompanied his display at the Hawthorns reflected bewilderment that a striker of his pedigree could fail to prosper with these creative talents around him. Six goals in 18 appearances this term represents an improved ratio as a Chelsea player to date, but the manager is entitled to expect more.

Guardian Service