You know what's really hard? Actually coming away with a clean sheet and an away goal in a Champions League tie. You know what's also really hard? Writing out an analysis when the internet decides to give up on you. Truthfully, the former has a lot more involved in it than my networking woes, so let's dig into the game a little bit more after the jump...
Team Selection and Shape
Starting with the away side, it's well documented that Roberto Di Matteo went with an unusual selection - probably because, well, it was really quite strange. While some personnel were justified and predicted by some, they weren't the selection of the masses - but Di Matteo got it spot on and he's the one whose opinion actually matters. I'm prettty sure 98% of the Chelsea support wouldn't have gambled on Paulo Ferriera and Salomon Kalou in such a crucial game, but thankfully the moves came off. More on that later, but to round out the Chelsea team, it was the 4-2-3-1 we've come to expect from Di Matteo, with Torres leading the line, Mikel and Meireles in the pivot and Terry and Luiz in the centres. Ramires and Kalou made up the flanks while Cole and Ferriera were likewise at fullback.
Benfica went with a lopsided 4-2-3-1, but at various periods in more resembled a 4-4-2 in that Aimar, the man in the hole, pushed up high to press alongside Cardozo. Benfica varied between narrow and wide, as the average position charts demonstrate - sometimes Cezar and Gaitan would stay wide and stretch the play, but mainly they looked to come inside, causing a fair bit of congestion in the middle.
- It was pretty clear Chelsea's game plan was to get in behind the Benfica fullbacks at speed. Hence the selection of Fernando Torres, whose lateral running into wide channels is at times extremely annoying, was extremely useful here. He gave Chelsea the option to create overloads in behind Maxi Periera and Emerson, more effectively on the right hand side with Ramires. What the downfall of this was that the two Chelsea fullbacks were focused primarily on defence duty than supporting the play, meaning that at times it was pretty easy to shut down the attack.
- Benfica's approach by contrast was varied. Sometimes it was the probing runs of Benfica's no.10, sometimes it was an attempt at aerial bombardment, and sometimes it was passages of passing play through the middle. It was testament then to the qualities and performances of Chelsea's defenders that they could cope with all these different attacking threats. Furthermore the contrast between Chelsea's centre backs really came in handy - Terry had an aerial success rate of 100%, while Luiz had twelve clearances and four blocks.
- They were also nonchalant in an attacking sense in that they seemed concerned of giving the ball away too cheaply. This probably came as a consequence of the pace in the starting line up and the general cautiousness that comes with a big European tie.
- The Benfica pairing of Witsel and Garcia worked in tandem where one would drop deep to account for the other's forward runs - mainly Garcia. In defence however both had the responsibility of covering the threat of Juan Mata, managing to squash the little Spaniard out of the game.
- Benfica's best attacking player was the highly-rated Nicolas Gaitan, who was given a WhoScored MOTM rating of 8.64 by virtue of his seven key passes and six successful dribbles. Part of this success came from his constant movement across both sides of the pitch, which made it difficult for Chelsea to keep a track of who was marking him. When either Cole, Kalou, Ferriera and Ramires sorted out that he was really on their flank, they accounted for him pretty easily - Ramires the standout in stifling the threat.
- In essence, this was a near-perfect template of how to play away in Europe. Chelsea were controlling when they had the ball - happy to pass between inside their own half, not giving the ball away cheaply - and they were also clincial on the counter attack - they had three fast breaks, of which one was scored and one should have been a goal (Mata's late chip).
- After Chelsea's goal, Jorge Jesus was pretty disappointing in his changes - neither initially or eventually showed any sign of providing the spark Benfica needed to get back in the game. Di Matteo's changes were sensible - Lampard was brought on to add some new attacking options, and Sturridge gave us some real pace on the break, and should have been vindicated by lieu of a goal when Mata wasted a late 3 v 5 opportunity with a silly chip.
- The build up to Kalou's goal has already been covered in depth by Graham, as has individual player analysis, which you can find here.
Was this a good performance? Definitely. Do we credit Di Matteo? Probably, but I'd be careful with taking this as evidence of the Italian's credentials for the full time job. Benfica weren't as good as one would expect from their play this year and their status as quarter-finalists. What this game did prove was that a midfield involving Mikel is much better looking in terms of opening up the attackers in the attacking bands, and also in controlling the tempo of a game. Di Matteo may be inclined to play Lampard and Essien in the pivot in games where we need to score (i.e Spurs and Napoli), but in doing so he may underestimate the power of pulling one player back in order to push more forward.
The tie isn't over yet, and one early goal at Stamford Bridge can turn the tie Benfica's way.