Roberto Di Matteo insists Chelsea remain united and has urged his players to believe in their capabilities as he gives serious consideration to dropping Fernando Torres for Tuesday's critical Champions League match at Juventus.
The holders go into the group game in Italy knowing victory would propel them into the knockout phase, but with a recent sequence of two wins in seven having drained momentum from their campaign. There were angry scenes in the dressing room after Saturday's loss at West Bromwich Albion, players venting their frustration at the recent underachievement, with all painfully aware that defeat to the Serie A champions would leave them on the verge of becoming the first defending champions to fail at the group stage.
Di Matteo retains the support of his players, with Gary Cahill claiming the squad were "all behind him, and he's definitely the right man for the job". Yet the Italian has some difficult choices to make in terms of his selection, principal among them who starts up front. Torres has started every game for which he has been available this season, but has scored only once since the first week in October and was peripheral at the Hawthorns.
Dropping the £50m British record signing would still constitute a considerable risk, particularly given the hierarchy's potential reaction should it backfire and Chelsea lose, but Di Matteo is conscious that, in the absence of experienced players such as Frank Lampard and John Terry, something has to be done to shrug his team out of their lethargy. "I've always said that we have two strikers in our team, Fernando and Daniel Sturridge," said the manager. "They're both fit and I'll have to see how we're going to go tomorrow. I will do whatever I believe is best for this game."
Chelsea are light in terms of options at centre-forward and are expected to pursue their interest in the Atlético Madrid forward Radamel Falcao in the midwinter window. It would take a fee similar to that spent on Torres to secure the Colombian, and any move would have implications for the two forwards currently at the club. Sturridge, whose opportunities have been limited largely to cameos, has been the subject of a further inquiry from Liverpool, the club who had tried to secure him back in August, and could yet depart in the new year.
Di Matteo, who should welcome back Ashley Cole from a hamstring injury and is considering David Luiz's involvement, was sleeping on which of Torres and Sturridge would start up front but remains optimistic his side can rally despite recent sluggish form to emerge unscathed from the glittering Juventus stadium. "The players need to have belief in themselves, and that's the most important aspect," said the manager. "We work together and, at the moment, we're all in it together and believe we have a good group, a good team, and are pulling together. We believe we can get a positive result.
"There was obviously frustration after the result on Saturday, and that's normal when things don't go your way. We owe ourselves a good performance. But we've proven many times before that, when it counts, our players can be counted upon. Everyone is fully committed for this game: we know it'll be difficult, but they're under pressure as well to win this game. We can get a win or a draw and will be OK. Juve need to win the match.
"It's quite clear this is a game where we have to be focused, where we are playing to qualify for the knock-out phase in the Champions League and to get into the last 16. It's almost a knock-out game a few months early, and nobody wants to become the first holders to be knocked out at this point."
There is pressure on the manager's shoulders already, only six months after he led this team to their first European Cup, with the hierarchy anxious that the recent dip is not prolonged as it has been in three of the last four years. The club chairman, Bruce Buck, and the chief executive, Ron Gourlay, are due to fly to Italy on Tuesday, the technical director Michael Emenalo having accompanied the squad to Turin, with the players seeking to make amends.
"In the short space of time I've been here, losing games is not acceptable," said Cahill. "When you do lose people are disappointed, hurt and upset, so Saturday's reaction [in the dressing room] was a positive thing. Sometimes things need to be said. I'd be worried if people just got showered and then got on the bus. When you lose game, does it knock your confidence? Of course. But we have strong characters who will come through it."
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