It was Napoleon who once said that he would prefer to have a lucky general than a good one, and I’m starting to wonder if he was actually talking about Roberto Di Matteo.
Chelsea’s interim manager has won an incredibly impressive nine of his 12 matches in charge since taking over from the hapless Andre Villas-Boas in February, but by analysing their performances I have to admit I’m struggling to work out how.
Take Sunday as an example. Chelsea beat Tottenham Hotspur 5-1 in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley, but there were large swathes of that match where Spurs were actually the better side, keeping the ball better and creating clear cut chances.
All of a sudden, a Didier Drogba wonder goal and a Martin Atkinson ‘special’ either side of half time put the Blues in control of a match they had contributed little to.
Spurs fell to bits and Chelsea ruthlessly exposed the gaps in their defence, but 5-1 was as flattering a scoreline as I can remember for some time: this after far from convincing performances in victories over Wigan, Stoke, Aston Villa and Benfica in both legs of the Champions League quarter-final.
In 11 away matches in the knock-out phase of the competition under Guardiola, Barcelona have only once seen a first half produce more than a goal, against Inter Milan in the San Siro in 2010.
Essentially, I am arguing that Chelsea are just about getting by under Di Matteo and that a fair amount of luck has played its part in the Italian’s record, but as far as the west Londoners are concerned long may that good fortune continue.
Because let’s be honest, they are going to need all the luck in the world if they are going to get the better of Barcelona over two legs in the Champions League semi-final.
Barcelona are several classes above anything Di Matteo has faced so far (state the obvious, why don’t I?) and I don’t see anything in Chelsea’s performances to suggest that over the course of 180 minutes the Blues can prevail against Pep Guardiola’s all stars.
A good result in the first leg at Stamford Bridge is a must. Chelsea are 15/4 to take a lead back to Camp Nou next week, with the draw at 31/10 and Barca quoted as 13/20 odds-on favourites to all but finish the tie with an away victory.
This is something of a grudge match thanks to a previous meeting in the semi-final in 2009, when a now infamous refereeing performance from Norwegian official Tom Henning Ovrebo, who denied Guus Hiddink’s Chelsea at least two (some say four) cast iron penalties, resulted in lingering bad blood between the sides.
There was little to choose between the teams over that tie (or, in truth, in general) as Barca went through on away goals, but the Catalan giants have since moved onto a different stratosphere and Chelsea have regressed badly.
But I think that the many Chelsea players who were involved in the previous meeting (12 in total) will remember the manner in which they nearly beat Barca, which was essentially to defend deep, compact and deny any space between the lines.
As the senior players get so much say at Chelsea, I expect this to be how they approach this match, even at home, and because of this I like the 11/5 that the first half at Stamford Bridge is goalless.
Four of Chelsea’s last seven at Stamford Bridge in all competitions have been 0-0 at half time, and the ones that were not were against Championship Leicester City and the two previous rounds of the Champions League when, against Napoli especially, scoring goals was the priority.
Wednesday is different – not conceding early is Chelsea’s aim. An early Barcelona goal would be catastrophic to Chelsea’s hopes of qualifying, so I don’t expect a great deal of early adventure from the home side.
Similarly, Barcelona are happy to monopolise the ball and bide their time and their statistics for away Champions League knock-out ties are interesting.
In 11 away matches in the knock-out phase of the competition under Guardiola, Barcelona have only once seen a first half produce more than a goal, against Inter Milan at San Siro in 2010. Four have been goalless and Barcelona have scored just four and conceded four in those 11 matches.
So it is clear with a home leg to come Guardiola will be happy to feel his way into the tie, and with the fear of an away goal Chelsea’s primary concern, that 11/5 on the first half finishing 0-0 is well worth a look.
Recommended bet: First half to finish 0-0 at 11/5
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