CHELSEA manager Roberto di Matteo last night landed a psychological blow ahead of this evening’s Champions League semi-final at Stamford Bridge, insisting Barcelona fear his team more than others.
The Blues are not fancied to beat the holders, whom they have played eight times in the last eight seasons, with Di Matteo admitting he will need to conjure two “perfect” games to reach next month’s final.
But they are unbeaten in their last five encounters – Chelsea’s controversial elimination of 2009 coming only on away goals – and the caretaker boss believes that record will be playing on Catalan minds.
“They don’t like to play against us. The results in the past show that,” said Di Matteo. “The way we play is maybe a bit more difficult for them to play against. We have shown on many occasions that we are a team who can give them a lot of problems.”
Chelsea have a flawless record at home in Europe this season, winning five out of five and scoring 16 goals, and are resurgent under the Italian, challenging again for a top four Premier League place and thrashing Tottenham 5-1 on Sunday to reach the FA Cup final.
Yet they are underdogs for a reason. Despite trailing Real Madrid in the Spanish top flight, Barca are widely regarded as the world’s finest, perhaps ever, and Lionel Messi, their attacking fulcrum, has scored a mind-boggling 63 goals for his club already this term.
“It’s fair to say we need two perfect games,” added Di Matteo, who ruled out injured defender David Luiz for at least a fortnight. “But I think, also, that the fact we’ve been performing very well in the last six weeks gives us the belief we can produce two perfect games in this match.”
Perceived injustice still rankles among Chelsea’s players, many of whom suffered the most painful of exits three years ago, when Andres Iniesta’s injury-time goal purloined a place in the final.
Referee Tom Henning Ovrebo’s refusal to assent to four penalty claims rubbed salt in the wound and prompted a tirade that earned Blues striker Didier Drogba a four-match European suspension.
Di Matteo played down the notion of a revenge mission but admitted: “There’s a strong feeling in the team that they want to do well, that they’re highly motivated to produce a good performance against Barca.”
Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola, who dismissed suggestions of replacing Di Matteo in the summer as “fantasy”, struck a similar tone to his opposite number when he recalled a defining match on his team’s ascent.
“A long time has passed,” said Guardiola. “I don’t think they are playing for revenge. What you have lost, is lost. We will both be playing to try to reach the final in Munich.”