Roberto Di Matteo has praised Chelsea's old guard for proving a point after his team defiantly weathered almost blanket Barcelona possession to pluck a potentially significant advantage in their Champions League semi-final before the return fixture at Camp Nou next Tuesday.
The London side lead this tie courtesy of their solitary shot on target, mustered by the 34-year-old Didier Drogba in first‑half stoppage time, to prompt Pep Guardiola to claim Chelsea had established themselves as "favourites" to progress to the final in Munich. That was rejected by Di Matteo, though the endeavours of his experienced side, who were outstanding in rugged defence, drew praise from the interim first-team coach.
His admiration for the old guard's response – typified by Drogba, Petr Cech, John Terry, Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard, whose efforts served to inspire those around them – was significant given André Villas-Boas's attempts earlier in the season to phase out some of the stalwarts of the José Mourinho set at Stamford Bridge.
"In the past a lot of the public opinion has been that these boys are over the line, too old to play two games and to play at this level," said Di Matteo. "It wasn't just Didier. There were other players on the pitch that people have regarded as 'the old guard' who can't play two games in such a short period of time.
"But they gave an answer on the pitch tonight. We have a team with a good team spirit, a good team ethic. Young and old stay together in this team and fight for the same target. That's what I think.
"Tonight was about a great collective defensive performance. It wasn't just our defenders: we needed to be able to close down the spaces as much as possible and limit Barcelona's threat. Ultimately, with the quality of some of their individuals, they still create problems.
"Sometimes it feels like they have 20 players. They play like that against Real Madrid, against Milan, too. But our team were prepared to be patient in defence and not get frustrated. We looked very organised and the boys were really determined not to let them through."
Barcelona enjoyed 72% of the possession, making 24 shots at goal, and yet still conceded from Chelsea's only effort on target. "That's football," said Guardiola. "It's not a question of it being fair or unfair but merely to congratulate Chelsea. We'd win every game if it was just about possession of the ball, because our average is more than our opponents', but the most difficult thing is putting the ball in the net. It won't be simple in the second game. They'll have 10 men behind the ball and will defend: they're stronger than us; they run, run, run; they jump more than us. But we have to try and take control and discover a way of scoring the goals. We knew this would be a challenge and wouldn't be easy. Chelsea are a team with a lot of experience.
"This was their sixth semi-final in nine years and it's not easy coming to Stamford Bridge even if people are saying Barcelona are much, much better. But only winners are remembered. Maybe we'll need to be a bit more adventurous and take a few more risks in the second game. Now, the favourites are Chelsea. They have had a good result but we still have 90 minutes to create as many chances as possible and take them."
There is an acceptance within the Chelsea squad – who are unbeaten in their past six meetings with the reigning European champions – that another evening of toil, with Barça enjoying the vast majority of the possession, awaits in Spain next week. "That will have to go down as one of our best performances," said Terry. "We had to be patient: we didn't touch the ball in the first 10 or 15 minutes and we had to work very hard.
"It was a tireless performance. But it will be tough in the second leg. They had a lot chances but, quite clearly, they will have opportunities there. We are not in awe of them, we respect them, but another performance and we'll be OK."
Terry was assisted by the outstanding Gary Cahill, whose performance drew praise from Di Matteo. "It was a bit of a baptism for Gary," he said. "He has not played much in the Champions League and it was a difficult game. But I am very pleased that he played so well."