European Champions Chelsea opened their defence of their Champions League crown with a somewhat lucky 2-2 draw with Serie A Champions Juventus. The sluggish Blues midfield showed a glaring flaw in Di Matteo’s setup.
Frank Lampard and John Obi Mikel started in the two deep midfield positions and were exploited by the Juventus midfield of Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio, forcing Di Matteo to regret letting Michael Essien leave for Real Madrid.
Mikel was at fault for the equaliser, misplacing a simple ball, but more important was his reaction after losing the ball.
The Nigerian just stood in the middle of the park, as Juve pounced through Marchisio who brilliantly passed to Fabio Quagliarella, who made no mistake sliding it through the legs of Petr Cech.
Mikel and Lampard were both lethargic in their attempts throughout the contest. Both struggled to threat, while failing to do a solid defensive job.
It was evident that Lampard was in his mid-thirties as the Chelsea vice-captain, as well as Mikel, were easily beaten numerous times and lacked the pace a central midfielder needs in such a high tempo Champions League encounter.
Mikel is a one-dimensional player. He can win the ball well and play basic back and side passes, but can’t really do much else.
One thing on the Nigerian’s side is his endurance – he can easily play out the whole 90 minutes each week.
Mikel and Lampard were outnumbered by the Juventus midfield as Marchisio and Vidal used the space left vacant by the Chelsea duo.
Lampard and Mikel also sat deep far too often, allowing the Juventus midfield and strikers to penetrate the edge of the Blues box, therefore letting Juve increase their chances of scoring.
Despite Oscar’s successful job in restricting Pirlo’s impact, Vidal and Marchisio controlled the Chelsea midfield. The two Bianconeri midfielders had chances, in fact Vidal exploited the space and found Juve’s first, while the duo moved well, especially Marchisio who should have buried at least one of his chances.
Essien could have been another option for Roberto Di Matteo to try and contain the Juventus midfield, but the Blues shipped the 29-year-old off to fellow Champions League contenders Real Madrid on loan.
To aggravate the situation, Essien moved on deadline day, while Portuguese midfielder Raul Meireles also left the London club days after, joining Turkish giants Fenerbahce early in September which gave Di Matteo no chance to sign a replacement for the two central midfielders.
Spaniard Oriol Romeu is the only other like-for-like replacement for Mikel, but the 20-year-old lacks big game experience. Therefore Di Matteo is forced to stick with Mikel especially after Josh McEachran and Yossi Benayoun also moved out on loan, while Florent Malouda stays in the reserves.
On a positive note, Oscar played exceptionally well on his Champions League debut, scoring two stunning goals.
But the Blues seemed to have packed their squad full of flamboyant attacking players (Oscar, Eden Hazard, Marko Marin, Victor Moses), whereas the imperative deep central midfield position is lacking some certain depth.
After the Juventus defeat, Chelsea and Di Matteo should realise that letting Essien go was a bad move.
He may not have been first choice, just like at Real, he may not be the same player he once was, but would be an important squad member for the Blues.