The scenario feels eerily familiar. Chelsea are a team under threat and confront daunting opponents in Shakhtar Donetsk on Wednesday, with Roberto Di Matteo suggesting they need to muster "the perfect game" to reassert some authority on the section. The Italian has used such rhetoric before, most notably ahead of last season's semi-final against Barcelona, but his was a recognition that the holders must now improve to progress.
Their continued participation in the Champions League teeters on the brink. On the assumption Juventus' slick approach play finally yields a first win against Nordsjaelland in Turin, Chelsea must defeat the Ukrainians at Stamford Bridge to ensure their destiny remains in their own hands. Shedding points tonight followed by defeat to Juve later this month could jettison them ignominiously and prematurely from the competition. This is an occasion to draw strength from the experiences en route to Munich.
The manager conceded as much. "We'll need to be at our best and must have the perfect game," said Di Matteo. "It's more than just about our status [as holders]. Every individual player going on the pitch has to perform at the best of their ability. There are comparisons certainly to last season, when we had must-win games. This is another. Fortunately, we have players with the experience who have been through that before and performed in big games like this. That will help them deal with the pressure."
This is Shakhtar, a team who have never previously prevailed competitively in England, and not Barça but it feels an awkward collision nonetheless. The visitors have swept all before them domestically, their winning streak in the Ukrainian league now stretching to 23 games to leave them 12 points clear at the top this term, but Mircea Lucescu's charges have been just as imposing in European competition. Their only blot on a perfect record was the group draw in Turin, a match Di Matteo conceded they should have won, and they certainly succeeded in scarring the champions at the Donbass Arena a fortnight ago.
On that occasion they scored early and then picked off the visitors on the break, wounding them down either flank with Alex Teixeira, Henrik Mkhitaryan and Willian a menacing trio operating behind Luiz Adriano. Teixeira isolated and exposed Ashley Cole, the full-back left critically unprotected. He will be absent altogether on Wednesday night as well as potentially from Sunday's visit of Liverpool – and, along with Frank Lampard, surely from England's squad for next week's friendly against Sweden – with a hamstring complaint picked up in the defeat to Manchester United. His wait for a 100th cap will be extended into 2013.
Ryan Bertrand was trusted in the Champions League final, albeit in a more advanced role ahead of Cole, and will step in at left-back but will expect to be severely tested by Teixeira's trickery. The visitors will sense vulnerability in the home back-line, even with John Terry restored after his domestic ban. "Chelsea are very strong, but we're not the weakest," said Lucescu, who was the last visiting manager to win a group game here, with Besiktas in 2003. "I prepare my players knowing all teams can be beaten, even Chelsea at home."
The holders conceded 10 in the four matches Terry missed, and the captain was present in Ukraine when only Petr Cech's brilliance kept the visitors afloat. "We conceded early and lost our organisation over there," said Branislav Ivanovic. "They're one of the best counterattacking teams in the group, so this will be very difficult. If we're going to be successful, we have to be stronger defensively as a team. That is the part of our game we have to improve. We will create chances against any team. The question is about our defence. That's what we have to work harder on."
This team boasted the ability to grind out results against Barça and Bayern Munich in the spring, relying upon a combination of dogged defence and Didier Drogba's brawn up front to muscle their way to a first European Cup. That style has evolved since – "Changing," was how Di Matteo described it – and there are valid questions over whether their more flamboyant approach, in its relatively embryonic form, can see them prevail against Europe's more impressive sides, into whose number Shakhtar are hoping to burst.
Yet the management are not for changing. "You look at the goals we've conceded in the Champions League and we've got many players behind the ball," added Di Matteo. "It's not like we've been caught out. No, we have to focus on what we can do, the problems we can create for the opposition, and let them be concerned about us. We've had some individual mistakes but, when we're fully focused, we're a very good team." The reigning champions will hope to remind all-comers of their qualities on Wednesday.