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CHELSEA'S 2-0 LOSS to Newcastle, combined with Tottenham's win over Bolton, means that the Blues will have to win the Champions League in order to be in that competition next season. Di Matteo made six changes from the team that beat QPR 6-1 on the weekends and the drop in quality was felt. The likes of Lampard, Mata and Cole made way for Meireles, Malouda and Bertrand. The loss was obviously disappointing but can we blame Di Matteo's team selection for the lackluster first half performance and ultimately the loss? I don't think so and here's why.
I have already written a statistic piece about how the fixture congestion is forcing Di Matteo to utilize the whole squad. And not much have changed since then. From March 6th (Birmingham in FA Cup) to May 2 (Newcastle in the league), Di Matteo has overseen 17 games for Chelsea. That is 17 games in a 58-day period (aka a game every 3.4 days). In that period, Chelsea has used 22 of its 25-men squad. Only Lukaku (a player bought for the future), Hilario and Turnbull ( the two back-up keepers) are left unused under Di Matteo.
If we look at the most recent fixtures, from Tottenham (FA Cup) to Newcastle, Chelsea played 6 games in a 17-day period (aka a game every 2.8 days). That is astounding even if you disregard the quality of the oppositions -- Tottenham, Arsenal, Barcelona x 2 and Newcastle. The point is, there have been plenty of important games within a short period and Di Matteo has to use the whole squad, not just a selected few, to do the job effectively. Given the circumstance, he has done great. The squad (not just team) is motivated and the morale is high. This whole thing about fixture congestion is not an excuse. It's a fact. It's the context within which everything takes place.
Looking at the starting eleven against Newcastle, it is clear that Di Matteo sent out a team mostly made up of second string players under his management. The likes of Mata, Lampard and Cole are first string players while the likes of Malouda, Sturridge and Bertrand belong to the second string. Plus, Ivanovic is a first string right-back but a second string center-back. Some interpret the resting of the first-stringers as a nod to the FA Cup final but it can also be seen as a look back at the fact that Mata, Lampard and Cole started the last two consecutive games -- Barcelona (A) and QPR (H).
If we have started this game with the first-stringers, win, lose or draw, it sends the message that the manager does not trust the second-stringers to do the job. So when the FA Cup final rolls up, do we then play the overused first-stringers again or do we send out the second-stringer who weren't trusted to do the job in midweek? Even if we were to have won the Newcastle game with first-stringers, it doesn't put the squad in a good position to take on Liverpool on the weekend and again in midweek. This is, of course, assuming that we can beat Newcastle with our first-stringers, which is not a sure thing considering the number of games they have played recently.
Chelsea are in the position they are now because Di Matteo trusts every player in the squad to do a job for the club. From Meireles to Ferreira, everyone has been made to feel valuable to the cause and has chipped in. If it were up to some sections of the fans, the likes of Meireles and Bosingwa would have been publicly executed the moment AVB was out the door.
ULTIMATELY, IT WAS the players who failed to perform. Malouda is not Mata (obviously). The French man did a poor job of linking up the play between midfield and attack. Sturridge was wasteful. Ramires overwhelmed by attacking responsibilities. Meireles and Mikel were second best compared to their oppositions -- Cabaye and Tiote. After about 25 minutes, it was looking more and more like the starting eleven can only do some damage limitation until some of the first-stringers come on in the second half.
Even then, Di Matteo did two things right after the poor showing from his starting eleven. Firstly, his substitutions were on point. Chelsea looked so much better after the introduction of Mata at the start of the second half. It was looking like we could have salvaged a draw when Drogba and Lampard came on later. But Cisse's amazing second goal put the game beyond Chelsea.
Secondly, Di Matteo did not blame his players in his post-match comments. He said he picked a strong team and gave credit to Newcastle for their performance. Compare that to Kenny Dalglish's reaction to Liverpool's lost to Fulham -- "the performance and the attitude was poor and that's not like us." To be fair, Dalglish did say that he takes part of the blame but his comment suggests that Liverpool could have done better if only the players have had the right attitude in the game.
So, the loss was disappointing but we can hardly blame Di Matteo for the selection he made. He is making the best out of the situation which requires him to motivate and utilize the whole squad and not just a selected few players.
Carefree, wherever you may be...