Ramires: AVB axe has made Chelsea stronger
Published 22:31 03/04/12 By Martin Lipton
A month ago they were a shapeless mess, trapped in a spiral of despair, going nowhere fast.
Falling out in lumps, led by a manager who had lost the dressing room, lost the fans, and, in the end, lost the owner as well.
On Wednesday, though, Chelsea are just 90 minutes away from the semi-finals of the Champions League, preparing for an FA Cup semi-final, battling, still, for a top four finish.
It is a remarkable transformation.
A team that had lost everything that had made it so formidable, suddenly reborn, revitalised, re-energised.
There may still be members of the Chelsea dressing room who harbour personal, private doubts about Roberto Di Matteo, who will be happy when he becomes a footnote in Stamford Bridge history, replaced by the next man to be handed Roman Abramovich's poisoned chalice.
But it is clear now, even clearer than it was when Andre Villas-Boas walked the plank, that his exit was a necessary one, the step that allowed unity of purpose to replace the divisions tearing the club apart.
Brazilian Ramires, remember, was among Villas-Boas' favourites, one of the players who basically was guaranteed to play even as the Portuguese decided Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, even John Terry had lost their status as "untouchables".
Yet, as the midfielder reflected on the transformation of the fortunes of the club since Villas-Boas was sacked and Di Matteo took over, his message told you all that was required to know about what was going wrong, why change was needed.
"Realistically, it's tough to say and hard to explain," said the Brazilian. "We went through a tough phase but we took strength from this change of coach.
"We found new confidence after the change and feel more more respect in ourselves. Roberto has instilled great confidence in us.
"Also, we began to realise we are actually a great team, with great players. We built from our first victory in the first game after Roberto took over and have gone from strength to strength."
Confidence. Respect. Strength. All the attributes missing from Villas-Boas' Chelsea, all the qualities shown against Napoli last month, in Lisbon last week.
On Wednesday, the last four beckons again, probably the last chance for Chelsea's Old Guard to win the one trophy that has so tantalisingly, heartbreakingly eluded them for the Abramovich era.
The players know it, too, as does Di Matteo, aware that this is likely to be his one and only chance at landing Abramovich's "Holy Grail".
Where Villas-Boas omitted Lampard and Ashley Cole in Naples and caused alienation, the England midfielder and Drogba accepted his explanations for being benched last week.
Di Matteo suggested: "I think stability helps every player and every club.
"The fact that we are winning games as well helps. That helps improve the confidence within every major player, and within the group. I keep communicating with the group and with the players, and we hope that allows the players to perform at the highest level they can.
"But the players know that they have to perform and they have a responsibility towards themselves and the club. You just have to try and get the best out of them. That's the way it is.
"I didn't think it was a brave selection in Lisbon. I thought it was the right selection with the players we had available, with an away game against Benfica. It wasn't a question of being brave.
"This team has enough experience to deal with pressure. Our players have experienced a lot of games like this, and they can raise their game to be able to perform in these pressure games. It doesn't look like we have any games where we're not under pressure. They're used to it."
They are, of course.
Petr Cech, Terry, Cole and the rest have been here so many times they will not blink under the expectations, the demands of playing for the club whose international reputation has been made by the one competition they have not conquered.
Ramires, who has spent the week fire-fighting and apologising after his post-match comments about the weakness of Benfica's left side were seen as an attack on compatriot, full-back Emerson, added: "In Brazil, when they talk about Chelsea, they do talk about them being in the same level and class as Barcelona and Real Madrid.
"There may be a weight because they haven't won the Champions League so far but that doesn't detract from the reality that it's a great club."
Di Matteo, desperate not to talk about his future, agreed: "If you look at the last decade of this club, it's become a domestic and international force. It's been always fighting for domestic trophies and titles, and internationally.
"It's never quite happened internationally, but I don't think that would take any shine off this club. The next step for us is to win this and qualify.
"That is the hunger we have to show."
CHELSEA v BENFICA: PROBABLE TEAMS
Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Cech; Ivanovic, Luiz, Terry, Cole; Mikel, Meireles; Ramires, Mata, Kalou; Torres
Benfica (4-4-2): Artur; Maxi Pereira, Javi Garcia, Luisao, Emerson; Witsel, Bruno Cesar, Aimar, Gaitan; Cardozo, Rodrigo
Referee: Damir Skomina (Slovenia)
CHELSEA v BENFICA: THREE TO WATCH
Javi Garcia - Real Madrid youth-system product is usually a central midfielder but has been press-ganged into centre-back service. Fernando Torres will surely seek to target his fellow Spaniard.
Nicolas Gaitan - Argentine left-sider, who went missing in action in the first leg but is still thought to be on radar of Chelsea and Manchester United. It's a night for him to show why.
Oscar Cardozo: The Paraguayan Peter Crouch caused problems at the Stadium of Light without inflicting any serious blows. Has to step up his game.
CHELSEA v BENFICA: MATCH FACTS
* English sides have always progressed when winning the first leg away from home in the knockout stage of this competition (in both its old and new formats).
* Despite attempting more than twice as many shots as Chelsea in the first leg (25 to 12), Benfica failed to score for the first time in this Champions League campaign.
* Benfica have failed to win any of their last five Champions League meetings against English opposition.
* Chelsea have won all of their four Champions League fixtures at home this season, scoring 14 goals in the process and conceding just one.
* Chelsea have conceded fewer goals at home (one) than any other team in the Champions League this season.
* Chelsea have opened the scoring in each of their nine Champions League games this season.
* The Blues have now scored in 10 consecutive European matches for the first time in their history (excluding qualifiers).
* No player has assisted more goals (five) in the Champions League this season than Benfica’s Nicolas Gaitan.
* Chelsea's Didier Drogba has scored five goals in his last five Champions League appearances.
* No side has scored a higher proportion of their goals in the first half of games than Benfica this season in the Champions League (67% - eight out of 12).