The interim first-team manager's main brief upon succeeding André Villas-Boas a month ago had been to infiltrate the top four and secure a place in next year's Champions League. Given the manner in which the campaign appeared to be unravelling, that alone appeared a daunting task, so any impact made in Europe this year could effectively be considered a bonus. Chelsea were trailing 3-1 to Napoli from their first leg in Italy, with the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Milan potentially awaiting in the quarter-finals depending upon the luck of the draw. To be now contemplating a sixth Champions League semi-final in nine years seems almost remarkable. Roberto Di Matteo will believe he can deliver the improbable – success against Barça in the semi and a second Champions League final – though, if the holders prevail this month, the stand-in manager will still have delivered more than had appeared likely.
This was a distinctly unimpressive performance by England's last remaining participants in Europe, the home side horribly stretched at times and then profligate once the visitors were depleted. That the game ended gripped in such tension was damning, so Barcelona will hardly be quaking in their boots at what awaits. The Chelsea of 2009 came close to eliminating the Catalans in the semi-finals. Agonisingly close. The crop of 2012 are not vastly different. This squad, after all, has been allowed to age collectively, and Di Matteo is reliant upon his more seasoned campaigners for the run-in. His side will need to muster unflinching defiance, unwavering concentration and colossal resolve if they are to make any impact in the semi-finals. They will also require all the good fortune denied them by Tom Henning Ovrebo's oversights three years ago, and a sprinkling of creative magic once they do wrest the ball back from Mess & Co. That's not asking too much, then.
Yet the management will be encouraged that so many of his most experienced performers have points to prove. This team may have laboured here but had excelled unexpectedly against Napoli – admittedly, hardly comparable in quality to the reigning European champions – to turn around that horrible first leg deficit, and performers such as Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole and John Terry will relish confronting Barca once more. The old guard had been badly needed here, Lampard slotting in the penalty but also notably tracking back to dispossess Nicolas Gaitan in the area after David Luiz had over-elaborated in possession. Cole galloped forward to earn the penalty and settle the nerves. Terry was strong and aggressive in the tackle before departing to rest tiring limbs. Chelsea shrunk noticeably once he had left as the nerves crept back in. They will need to summon the strength of 2009, when their resilience at Camp Nou and initial surge in the return had come so close to edging out Barça, and forget about their jitters here if they are to progress again.
This was no real gauge of quality. There had been plenty of bullish rhetoric from Jorge Jesus on the eve of this game, insisting Chelsea had been "lucky" in the first leg and that his team boasted the quality to prevail in the return. He was almost proved right, yet misfortune had already damaged those prospects even prior to kick-off here. The loss of Jardel and Luisao, the latter the most experienced defender in the Portuguese club's ranks, left the visitors with a soft underbelly. Javi García, more normally a central midfielder, made for an unconvincing centre-back and barged Ashley Cole off the ball for the first-half penalty. Emerson at his side had been employed at left-back at the Estadio da Luz. This was too makeshift a defensive lineup to be water-tight so losing their right-back and captain, Maxi Pereira, before the interval sounded a death knell. There was more urgency to their attacking play here than in Portugal and they did stretch their hosts throughout, equalising late on to ensure the frantic finale and coming so close to conjuring another, but they always felt too fragile to remain intact themselves.
The Slovenian referee Damir Skomina stood on the edge of the centre-circle after blowing his whistle for half-time, waiting for the players to depart down the tunnel and Jorge Jesus, fingers jabbing in disgust, to retreat after them. This was the highest profile game to date of the 35-year-old's Uefa career, and he had appeared to lose control of what had hardly been a spiky contest early on, flashing five yellow cards, plus two for Pereira. Mikel John Obi became the eighth after the interval. Arsène Wenger faces a three-match touchline ban for expressing dismay at Skomina's performance in Arsenal's 3-0 victory over Milan last month, after which he claimed Uefa had transformed referees into "untouchable icons". The official was plain touchy here, with a quartet of Benfica's bookings appearing to be for dissent. Imagine how many players would be left on the pitch if he was asked to officiate a Barcelona versus Real Madrid final in Munich?