ROBERTO Di Matteo paid tribute to Chelsea's "old guard" for answering their critics last night after Didier Drogba's goal gave them a crucial 1-0 lead over Barcelona going into Tuesday's Champions League semi-final second leg.
In Chelsea's third win over Barcelona in the Roman Abramovich era, Drogba, John Terry and Ashley Cole summoned up a performance redolent of the best of the Jose Mourinho years to shut out the defending champions and clear favourites for the competition.
"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," the Chelsea caretaker manager said of witnessing excellent performances from his older players, three days after they turned on the style in the FA Cup semi-final win over Tottenham Hotspur.
"It wasn't just him [Drogba]. There were other players on the pitch that you regard as the old guard who can't play two games in such a short period of time," Di Matteo added. "But they gave an answer on the pitch tonight."
Chief among those who did not believe the likes of Frank Lampard and Drogba were capable of playing such high-intensity games so close together was Andre Villas-Boas, from whom Di Matteo took over last month, having previously been assistant manager.
The Italian was keen to acknowledge that every player had contributed to the performance. "I talk about the team," he said. "You talk about them as the old guard. We have a team, 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."
Barcelona dominated possession in a tight game, but Drogba scored the only goal in first-half added time. Alexis Sanchez and Pedro both hit the woodwork but Chelsea's defensive 4-5-1 system was successful in limiting Barcelona's chances.
"It was almost perfect," Di Matteo said of his players' discipline and organisation. "The quality of Barcelona and their style of play is to keep possession. But we looked very organised and the boys were really determined not to let them through. I thought there was a tremendous effort tonight."
Di Matteo denied that Barcelona's domination meant that they deserved to win. "When you score a goal and you win the game, you deserve to win it," he argued. "Certainly, they have had more possession and a few more attempts on target, but they always have that. You need to be clinical to take your chances when you play against them. You know you'll get some chances, and you have to take them."
Despite having the lead, and not having conceded an away goal, Di Matteo said that the tie was still even. "I don't think it makes us favourites," he said. "It's 50-50 to go through to the final. You know what to expect when you play at Nou Camp. It'll be very, very difficult and we still have to believe that we might be able to score a goal there as well. It'll be a tough game. It is for any team going to Barcelona. We'll have to give our best again."
The Barcelona coach, Pep Guardiola, disagreed. "Now the favourites are Chelsea," he said. "They have a good result. But, at least we have a challenge to play 90 minutes. In that time, we'll create as many chances as possible. But 1-0 is a very, very good result for them. They're the favourites."
Guardiola predicted a similar contest in Catalonia. "It won't be simple," he said. "They'll have 10 men behind the ball, they'll defend, they're stronger than us, they run, run, run, they jump more than us. But we have to try and take the game under control and discover a way of scoring the goals."
Both sides have difficult games beforehand. Chelsea travel to Arsenal on Saturday, while Barça host Real Madrid in an el clasico that evening.