London – Whipping around at the top of a tall pole beside the gatehouse to Chelsea’s training ground on Tuesday was a royal blue flag carrying a slogan of pride.
‘European Champions 2012’ it declared, rekindling the glories of Munich in May on a cold and windy December day in Surrey.
Chelsea spent the best part of a decade in restless pursuit of this status yet, 200 days after that night in the Allianz Arena, they are in grave danger of prematurely losing their grip on the trophy.
Roberto Di Matteo has paid with his job and, as the players rumbled past the gatehouse in their over-sized vehicles, his interim replacement as manager, Rafa Benitez, asked them to prove they have the appetite to surpass last season’s success.
“When you’re a top side, who have already won trophies, but you’re missing one...,” said Benitez, trailing off then changing his angle of attack. “Chelsea won the Champions League, a massive achievement. It changes the perspective a bit for the next season.
“It changes the hunger of the players and the staff. If you want to stay at the maximum level for a while you have to be competitive. It’s part of our job to push them and try and keep the competition.
“I can see that in every training session the commitment is there. I can’t say they don’t want to win because they won it. I think it’s the opposite. They changed the manager.”
No team have successfully defended the trophy in the modern era but no champions have failed to make it beyond the first stage of their defence.
Chelsea require help from Shakhtar Donetsk to progress. The Ukrainian champions have already qualified for the last 16 but if they cannot beat Juventus in the Donbass Arena the Blues are out, regardless of how it goes at home to Nordsjaelland at the Bridge.
Benitez said he expects Shakhtar to perform as they did when they beat Chelsea in October but the man who inspired the ’Miracle of Istanbul’ when in charge of Liverpool knows this is different.
“I don’t think it’s a miracle,” said Benitez. “We have to do our job and wait for the other teams. You can do a lot of maths but you have to win and Shakhtar have to win.
“We can’t worry about the other game. Juventus and Shakhtar are good teams but we have confidence Shakhtar can beat them. It’s not a miracle. Sometimes it’s luck. It’s not dependent on us but on others.”
The Spaniard was in his first year as manager of Liverpool when they won the European Cup in 2005, recovering from 3-0 down to AC Milan to win on penalties.
For Chelsea supporters, that campaign ended at Anfield, with Luis Garcia’s ‘ghost goal’ and the origin of a rivalry between the clubs which lingers in the form of their enduring opposition to Benitez. ”I’m not deaf,” said Juan Mata, when asked if he was aware of the fans’ protests during the interim manager’s first three games.
Benitez took Tuesday’s session and attended the pre-match press conference in a lurid, high-visibility yellow waterproof training top. You could not accuse him of hiding.
“I am ready for the challenge,” said the Spaniard. “I don’t lose my focus because someone says something on the terrace. My job is to prepare the team and be ready.
“I will always try my best, I will try to win and hopefully that will change the perception.”
His last game in the Champions League was a 3-0 defeat when in charge of Inter, at Werder Bremen, as the Italians struggled to defend the title won under Jose Mourinho.
They squeezed into the knockout rounds but Benitez didn’t make it. He was sacked in December.
Two years on, this game ought to be easier against a Danish team who have taken only one point from five games in their debut Champions League campaign.
It may even go some way towards repairing the shattered confidence of a Chelsea side with only two wins from 11 games in all competitions. They scored four in Copenhagen in October but that was before the collapse.
Still they are without Frank Lampard and John Terry. Lampard, out since aggravating a calf injury in Donetsk, in October, trained on Tuesday but is not ready to start, while Terry is struggling to recover from a knee injury and may miss Chelsea’s Club World Cup campaign.
Confidence has been a Benitez buzz-word since he took control last week and it appeared again on Tuesday as he assessed the poor form of £82million worth of talent in Fernando Torres and Eden Hazard.
“The players are ready mentally,” said Benitez. “They’re used to playing at the top level and for trophies. It’s a question of confidence.
“If we start the game well and score a goal it will be easier. But it’s the Champions League and a challenge for everyone.”
Or it could be the Europa League. Another challenge for everyone and a trophy Chelsea have never won. Perhaps there will be an appetite for that one. – Daily Mail