Chelsea vs Shakhtar – An Acid Test for Di Matteo
There’s been absolutely no bones made about it, if Chelsea cannot defeat Shakhtar tonight then we’re in trouble – we’ll need an away win at Juventus in order to secure 2nd place in the group, with 1st place gone for sure. It’s a vital game first and foremost, but it’s also a fascinating game from a tactical perspective, as no doubt both teams will look to play in an almost identical fashion, just as they did in the first leg.
The Ukrainians bested us in numerous areas two weeks ago. Tomorrow is the acid test for di Matteo’s tactical nous. There’s no doubt in my mind, that whilst Shakhtar are probably one of the top 15 club sides in the world (maybe top 10!), we possess a lot more quality and should be able to win. How di Matteo lines the team up and how he attempts to solve/prevent the problems we faced two weeks ago will be a massive indication as to just how well he understands the capabilities and versatility of his squad.
Firstly, let’s have a look at Shakhtar and then consider the options he has. The Ukrainian Champions are currently on a 23 domestic game winning streak; they have a 12 point lead at the top of the table and are no doubt half way to their 7th title in 9 years! Naturally they’ll be full of confidence; certainly in the first game they just seemed to have a winning aura about them. But, the fact that they’re used to playing such a low level of competition, comparatively, can definitely play into Chelsea’s hands. As their Armenian midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan confessed to the press, the squad had to train significantly harder than usual in preparation to play Juventus and ourselves. Even though they’re top of the group at the moment, at times they’ve looked fairly toothless in attack, failing to put away chances, while both goals they’ve conceded also have been very soft.
There are lots of little decisions di Matteo has to make, but ultimately he has one thing to decide. Does he try and overwhelm Shakhtar using our home advantage or does he play it safe and focus on denying their forwards space by sitting back and keeping possession?
One thing is absolutely for sure, and that’s we need to defend the flanks better. The wide areas are where Shakhtar really hurt us last time out. I don’t think anybody, including me, wants to see our creative triumvirate broken apart, but, after the number of times we saw Darijo Srna and Razvan Rat bomb forward past Mata and Hazard in Ukraine, sadly I think it needs considering. One other issue we need to address is the space we gave to Mkhitaryan, who I think is a phenomenal player and easily their biggest threat. Initially he was contained, squeezed in between Mikel and Lampard but after the latter came off injured, he found himself in far too much room, with Ramires more preoccupied with the runs of Fernandinho (who in that one game at least looked like a truly world class box-to-box midfielder). Their Brazilian wide men Alex Teixeira and Willian also had very good games, assisted by the clever movement of Luiz Adriano up front, they gave our fullbacks a hard time, leaving them visibly unsure at times whether to hold back or try and push them further up.
If I was di Matteo this is how I would line up:
IVANOVIC CAHILL TERRY BERTRAND
MOSES MATA RAMIRES
Firstly, I’d want to make sure Iva and Bertrand stay goal side of their wingers. Don’t let them track too far back and leave Cahill to run the offside trap. In the last game, our full backs simply spent too much time trying to get forwards and it left us dangerously susceptible to counters.
I’d stick Oscar, who had trouble evading Tomas Hubschmann in the away game, alongside Mikel in the double pivot. It might sound risky tasking a 21 year old with playing such an important defensive role, as well as initiating all our attacks from deep, but if I know anything about Chelsea, I know that Oscar is sure as hell good enough. It’ll also mean we can play Ramires wide left to help negate the runs of Srna like he did with Dani Alves in the semis last year. Ideally I’d play him wide right with Bertrand wide left, but with Cole out injured that obviously isn’t possible. Regardless, you’d expect the in-form Victor Moses to deal with 31 year old Razvan Rat well enough. With only room for one of Hazard or Mata left, the latter obviously picks himself at the moment.
Finally, I I’d also go with Torres over Sturridge. I thought the Spaniard did a brilliant job stretching the Shakhtar back line two weeks ago. They clearly aren’t used to dealing a forward with such good movement and he made it show. If only his touch could improve I’d back him to find some good opportunities to score. If it’s evident however his form is no better than it was in the first game, I wouldn’t wait as long to bring Daniel Sturridge on. I’d make sure he had half an hour at least.
Shakhtar boss Mircea Lucescu was actually the last manager to win at Stamford Bridge in the group stages of the Champions League with Besiktas in 2003. Personally I’d be surprised if he does it again. These days we’re a very tough team to beat away from home in Europe. Mata’s comments about how this game feels like a Cup final shows are seriously we’re taking it as well. Hopefully by this time tomorrow we’ll be back on top of the group, back full of confidence in the team after a tricky two weeks and also full of confidence in di Matteo as well, knowing he won’t make the same mistakes twice. And if he wins using my suggested formation – even better!