The interim manager will hear no talk of what may lie ahead and warns that their 1-0 Champions League lead is 'dangerous'
Roberto di Matteo is experiencing a microcosm of life as Chelsea manager. Thrust unexpectedly into a position of colossal responsibility a month ago, his brief primarily to infiltrate the top four, he has successfully steadied domestic league form, steered his team into an FA Cup semi-final and has overseen two wins, one startling and the other hugely impressive, in Europe. Now, having apparently taken all that in his stride, a different kind of challenge awaits.
For the first and, most probably, only time during his brief tenure as the London club's interim first-team coach, Di Matteo will go into a Champions League contest on Wednesday night with his team considered overwhelming favourites to progress. Against Napoli in the last round, when the hefty first-leg deficit was a legacy of a failed previous regime, there had been little left to lose. At the Estádio da Luz last week, where Benfica were unbeaten in 10 matches in Europe, the visitors' 1-0 victory was as unanticipated as it was thoroughly deserved.
But, with an advantage now established in their quarter-final and thoughts inevitably drifting to a heavyweight contest against Barcelona in the last four, raised expectations will bring new pressures. So much appears to sit in their favour, and Chelsea have steamrollered visitors to south-west London in this competition this season, their home form having carried them to this stage. With that in mind, and with a sixth semi-final appearance in nine years within grasp, Di Matteo's immediate task is to ensure focus remains upon the Portuguese rather than any more mouth-watering occasion that might lie ahead. All their hard work cannot be wasted.
The Italian visibly bristled at any mention of last-four opponents in his pre-match media conference at Stamford Bridge. Even the club's frustration at the scheduling of their kick-off time in the FA Cup against Tottenham was off the agenda, with its implication that a Champions League home leg would follow 72 hours later. The caretaker coach claimed the narrow advantage was worth "nothing", that the lead was "dangerous" rather than cause for considerable optimism.
"This tie is far from over," came the warning, one that will be reiterated to his players before kick-off. "Benfica have scored in all their away games in Europe this season, so it's a difficult task ahead of us. We'll have to approach this game like we did the Napoli game. It is a different sort of pressure, but this team has enough experience to deal with it. Our players have experienced occasions like this, and they can raise their game to be able to perform in the matches that really matter.
They're used to it. Actually, at the moment, it doesn't really feel as if we are playing any games where we're not under pressure..."
That admission perhaps reflects the relentless nature of Chelsea's schedule. This could be the first of 11 games in 40 days should they progress into the semi-finals, a tally that would not include an FA Cup final and a period that could potentially be elongated by an appearance in the Champions League final.
"There are a lot of clubs that would like to have so many games, to be involved in all these competitions," said Di Matteo. "It's very demanding for the players, but we're in a good place."
He is arguably in the best of all. Chelsea are actually benefiting from the input of a manager who can afford to be relatively carefree. Di Matteo can really only enhance his reputation in this period "unless the team's form completely disintegrates, which already feels unlikely" and can afford to approach each match with calm authority. He may feel huge responsibility towards a club with whom he flourished as a player but, unlike the likes of Carlo Ancelotti or André Villas-Boas, he is not entering contests in this competition desperately fighting to retain his job.
Guus Hiddink revelled as an interim three years ago. Di Matteo, behind the regular complaints that his life has become far too busy of late, will be thrilled to be contemplating a contest of this magnitude.
Benfica arrive wounded but, as Di Matteo stressed, far from condemned even if they are to play Javi García, a midfield player, in the centre of defence. They have kept only seven clean sheets in 25 Portuguese league games this season and Chelsea, with Fernando Torres expected to be retained up front with Didier Drogba a slight doubt with a toe injury, will hope to register once more. "But they are a very good side, and have already been to Old Trafford this season and drawn," said Di Matteo. "We know how hard that is. They have some exceptional players so we know they're still a threat."
As if to prove a point, Chelsea's in-house television channel filmed João Ricardo Pateiro, a commentator for the Portuguese broadcasters TSF, bellowing a trademark and prolonged celebration of an anticipated Pablo Aimar goal as if rehearsing for the visitors' glorious night. The hosts will hope his routine is never aired for real.