Many underestimated the reigning Champions of Ukraine, but few will take for granted the risks inherent in tomorrow's critical encounter at Stamford Bridge.
I'll admit, it was easy for me to look past Shakhtar when the group draw crystallized. Little was known to me of the Ukrainian outfit, save for a handful of stories linking us with their Brazilian winger Willian. Otherwise? I was essentially in the dark on the relative strengths of their approach- and completely blindsided by their ferocious counter-attacking style. To say I, and many of my brethren, have learned our lesson would be a gross understatement.
Date/Time: Wednesday, November 7th, 19:45 (BST); 2:45 PM (EDT); Thursday, November 8th, 1:15 AM (IST)
Venue: Stamford Bridge, London, UK
TV Information: Sky Sports 2 (UK); Fox Soccer Plus (USA), TEN Action (India)
Tomorrow presents the third test in the early phases of Chelsea's quest to defend it's European crown. A home draw to with Juventus coupled with an away beat-down at the hands of said Ukrainians brings us to this moment; a chance to garner a much-needed win and secure our positioning within Group E. Shakhtar presently sit atop the standings with seven points, with our beloved Blues sitting in second on four points. I challenge anyone reading to say without the slightest bit of deceit in their heart that they were convinced the Donetsk boys would be top of the group at this stage. Anyone? BUELLER?
Look, I'm not the weepy nostalgic type, but the parallels between this match and last season's Napoli tie at Stamford Bridge are too obvious to ignore. Granted, we were in a much more precarious circumstance then as opposed to now, but, we are straddling the ledge a bit in terms of guaranteeing safe passage to the knockout phase. For Chelsea to ensure that they do not become the first side to ever win the crown and fail to make it out of the opening gate, nothing short of a victory will suffice. A draw, while not mathematically eliminating the Blues from consideration, will make it that much harder to go to Turin in a fortnight and secure a win (with out backs clearly up against a wall at that stage, mind).
Shakhtar: We saw their prowess in action, and can all admit it was better than anticipated. As Tim previously pointed out in his Tactical Preview prior to the first leg, the squad approach is essentially to let the Brazilian contingent get fancy and fly down the attacking third while leaving the Eastern European members to do the dirty work. Suffice it to say, it's not the most original of approaches- yet it has produced remarkable results. Undefeated in what seems like a century in domestic competitions, claiming the scalp of Chelsea in Europe, and a manager who does not shy away from effusing praise on his players suggests this is a side feeling more than confident about it's chances.
Having defeated Metalurh Zaporizhzhya 2-0 on Saturday, with Douglas Costa and Luiz Adriano getting on the scoresheet, Donetsk are now riding high on a 23 match unbeaten run in the domestic arena. It will take something of a yeoman effort on the part of Chelsea to subdue their roaring approach. And quite honestly, why on earth wouldn't they be feeling like this is their night? They're in fine form, they've proven they can beat us on one night, and they're entering the match as underdogs despite being atop the group table. They're able to rest players on the domestic front to ensure they're fresh and prepared for the Champions League, with midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan admitting when asked if he'd had to work "really hard" in the home game against Chelsea two weeks ago.
"This is not the Ukrainian championship. When playing in the Champions League, you must move faster, close down the zones, orchestrate fast attacks. There are no weak opponents. All the teams are very strong. We must know how to defend, how to attack."
If there's any criticism of Shakhtar's approach, it's their general complacency when winning matches often leads to them conceding late goals. But really, that's not so much a criticism as an absolute nitpick of the highest order. On the pitch, Donetsk did the bulk of their damage in the wide areas, with Chelsea scampering in the wake of their wave after wave of approaches. Expect a heavy dose of the same tomorrow evening, with Willian again being the focal point- his ability to cut inside on his preferred right foot off the left flank will be on display. Elsewhere Mkhitaryan had a monster evening, and truly bossed the midfield with his performance- and it will be particularly interesting to to see how Di Matteo elects to counter the threats posed by a Shakhtar side bursting with confidence.
Chelsea: It hasn't exactly been the best two weeks in SW6, but by all accounts, it hasn't been a disaster either. Since losing to Shakhtar, Chelsea have incurred a controversial loss to Manchester United, fought back from the brink of elimination to trump United in the Capital One Cup, and toiled to a draw at the Liberty Stadium over the weekend. In short, a bit of a mixed bag. As is customary with this time of the campaign, we appear to be carrying a handful of injured players on our roster, with Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole, Juan Mata, and David Luiz in states of repair. Certainly, we know that Lampard and Cole are out for tomorrow- which isn't necessarily the worst news especially when you consider how poor Cole was against Swansea over the weekend. His absence almost certainly guarantees Ryan Bertrand will feature at left-back in a defense that will also include oft-suspended never-replicated defensive maven John Terry.
As Chelsea have continued to ship goals at an alarming rate in their last five matches, the inclusion of a rested and prepared Terry may be precisely what the lineup requires. Ivanovic, speaking during the customary pre-match press conference, underscored John's importance to the defense by calling out his well-documented leadership qualities. In short, Bane made mention of Terry's vocal qualities to ensure that the shape of the defense is prepared and maintaining it's focus. I would venture to say he'll feature tomorrow alongside David Luiz (provided he and Mata pass late fitness tests), meaning the goalscoring machine that is Gary Cahill will likely find a spot on the pine for this one. Ivanovic, unsurprisingly, will deputize on the right in favor of Azpi.
Elsewhere, Di Matteo will have some selections to ruminate on over the evening. With our midfield failing to corral the Shakhtar approach last time, he may well elect to shake some of the positions- but I'm thinking otherwise. For my money, I would anticipate Obi Mikel and Ramires holding the double pivot down (especially when you consider the poor form of Oriol Romeu as an alternative, this one really solves itself). As for the attacking trident? Well, you could say the tried-and-true trio will be there, but that assumes Mata is fit to play. Should be ruled ineligible, then Victor Moses will likely be asked to fill in. I've been particularly impressed with what Mosé (aka Rozay) has been demonstrating these last two matches, and prefer his direct, almost bullish approach to wing play. It adds an alternative dimension to our approach, but more importantly, provides additional support to Ivanovic on the defensive side of the pitch, which was exploited ad nausem in the first leg.
As for Fernando? Guys, look, he's not scoring right now and I get that. But it's a home fixture, he's clearly due for one, and if he's not showing you anything in the first 45 minutes, then Daniel will be on the bench waiting for an opportunity. So give him another run and lets see what he's made of. I'd feel more gutted about his latest no-shows if he was taking and missing chances- but he's not even cracking the ball whatsoever. Hell, Daniel had at least seven shots in one match against United, whereas for the entire SEASON Nando has about 10 shots. Appalling. (SIDENOTE: Fernando, stop bleaching your hair, stop cutting it short, stop wearing that foolish headband. Buzz it off and knock off the theatrics and play the game son).
In short, tomorrow matters for many reasons. But you already knew that. We'll have to wait and see what version of the squad Di Matteo elects to throw into the frying pan for this outing. Tactically, I'll be watching to see what methods he uses to neutralize Shakhtar's approach on the counter- and how disruptive our midfielders can be in stopping the supply of the ball into the attacking third for Donetsk. Otherwise, you know, just another European night for Chelsea.