Fourteen months ago, on the fourteenth of March, Roberto Di Matteo ran like a madman onto the pitch. Above him, the stars hinted at destiny; around him, Stamford Bridge was the loudest ever heard. His Chelsea team, in only his third match in charge, had just completed quite possibly the greatest comeback in club history and his bear-huggings of everything with a pulse were understandably bordering on assault.
A few days later, the combination of Raul Meireles and Fernando Torres produced three of the five goals in the FA Cup drubbing of Leicester City and things were looking up and life was good. But this is football and the mood swings with each second of the running clock. A tragic loss at Manchester City and a dour, listless draw with Tottenham Hotspur followed in the league, and discontent returned to the ranks, a top four finish fading away. It was in this disheartened state that Chelsea flew to Lisbon to meet Benfica for the first time ever.
What followed was one surprisingly composed and strong 1-0 victory, one winning, away goal in Europe from
the light of my life the one and only Salomon Kalou, and one sore loser of a Benfica manager.
Unfair, he cried! His team deserved it, he cried! "I can't handle Ramires," Benfica left back Emerson cried, Di Matteo's gameplan perfectly exploiting the Blue Kenyan's endless stamina and searing pace and to hit the hosts on the counter.
And this match heralded not only the arrival of Ramires as a useful option (in specific situations) on the wing, but also saw the confirmation of John Obi Mikel as the perfect fit for a double pivot to anchor a counter-attacking side. Mikel's strength, composure, and positioning allowed Frank Lampard a degree of freedom, to which the Chelsea legend responded by repeatedly Pirlo-ing passes to the aforementioned Ramires ... much to the chagrin of Barcelona, among others.
Ramires was not the only ex-Benfica man having a field day. David Luiz, God of all Narrative, was dominant in defense and caused Graham to say things like "the mental mistakes are slowly being ironed out of David Luiz's game, and that makes for a superb player." I wonder if the current Interim manager takes credit for this one, too?
In any case, Di Matteo's strategy was working to perfection in the second leg as well - only dampened by a comical series of wasted chances, including the "best" miss you'll see by somebody not named Fernando - before a late defensive lapse allowed an unchallenged Javi Garcia to nonchalantly nod the ball into Petr Cech's net. Fortunately, Raul Meireles, formerly of FC Porto, came to our nerves' rescue, his spectacular 25-yard effort justifying the 34,723 failed long bombs that had come before.
And as the Cult of MRLSH entered THREAT LEVEL HAIR FERRET, the rest, as they say, was history.
NB: Speaking of history, in case I'm not the only one who likes to browse the archives every once in a while, here are the links to our coverage of the two and, until Wednesday, the only two meetings ever between Chelsea and Benfica. These were the days before StoryStreams, so each article is linked separately:
Preview (GM), 1st Half (GM), 2nd Half (GM), Reaction (GM), Recap (SS), Kalou goal analysis (GM), Ratings (GM), Post-match analysis (TP),
Jorge Jesus is whiny (GM), Preview (GM), 1st Half (GM), 2nd Half (GM), Ramires miss (GM), Reaction (GM), Recap (GM), A Note to Benfica (GM), Ratings (GM)