Di Matteo must avoid winter Blues for Chelsea to maintain title challenge

Chelsea dropped points for the second consecutive Premier League game against Swansea on Saturday during a period of the season that has often proved difficult for them to manage
By Oliver Platt

Roberto Di Matteo, at least, has been here before. October and November have not treated Chelsea kindly over the past two seasons and the new manager was Andre Villas-Boas' assistant when the rot began to set in this time last year.

It is important to say from the outset that the Blues' title hopes at this point in the season look very much more realistic now than they did at the same time in 2011-12. Not only had Villas-Boas' Chelsea collected four points fewer after 10 matches, but they also trailed the league leaders by not one point but nine.

Manchester City had won nine and drawn one and had a goal difference of plus-28. Later, of course, Roberto Mancini's team and Manchester United would throw first place back and forth like a hot potato but at the end of October the team that has dominated the Premier League era was simply clinging on and had already suffered a 6-1 humiliation.

As a result, two consecutive defeats for Chelsea against QPR and Arsenal looked terminal to Villas-Boas' outside chance of immediately topping the English league. This year, that is not the case and that makes avoiding the now familiar pre-winter gloom crucial.

A single defeat to Manchester United does not constitute a crisis - particularly after recent victories over Tottenham and Arsenal away from home - but the draw against Swansea City provided more cause for concern. At the back, in the absence of the suspended John Terry and the injured David Luiz, Chelsea did not play badly. Ahead of defensive midfielder John Obi Mikel, though, they were less functional.

Already, the decision to name such a strong side for the Capital One Cup match against United was looking short-sighted. Only Rafael, of the Red Devils' team, went on to start against Arsenal in Saturday's lunchtime kick-off. Di Matteo, on the other hand, included six of his midweek XI in his line-up at the Liberty Stadium.

Juan Mata and David Luiz almost certainly would have played in Wales had 120 minutes of football on Wednesday not rendered them incapable. Victor Moses also lasted the full stretch, while Eden Hazard and Oscar both came on in the second half and played an additional 30 minutes of extra time. Moses scored against Swansea, but how much he knew about his header is difficult to tell and all three looked some way short of their dynamic best.

10/1 Chelsea are 10/1 with William Hill to beat Shakhtar Donetsk 2-0 on Wednesday
Now Chelsea prepare for their crucial Champions League match against Shakhtar at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday. They do not have to travel, at least, but their experience in Donetsk will ensure that they know these opponents are not to be taken lightly. Liverpool await at the weekend and, at the end of November, the Blues take on Manchester City five days after meeting Juventus.

It is a hugely demanding schedule and one that Di Matteo must balance. His best team may be capable of producing exhilarating football but that is not new. Villas-Boas had enjoyed 4-1, 5-1 and 3-1 victories over Swansea, Bolton Wanderers and Everton respectively before the hiccough at QPR while Carlo Ancelotti must have thought he was on to something special when his Premier League champions began their title defence with consecutive 6-0 hammerings of West Brom and Wigan Athletic. These results tend to come before the fixture list piles up.

Sir Alex Ferguson is a master of the art of managing and making use of his whole squad. Consider the impact of Javier Hernandez both in the Premier League and the Champions League. Nick Powell, Ryan Tunnicliffe and Federico Macheda came off the bench at the Bridge last week and United lost the tie, but they leapfrogged Chelsea to top spot in the league three days afterwards thanks to goals from the rested Robin van Persie and Patrice Evra.

Later on Saturday, Pablo Hernandez made the most of tired legs to grab an 88th minute equaliser for Michael Laudrup's team. Chelsea had defended resiliently and Petr Cech had barely been worked until that point, but Swansea ended the game looking as if they had much more left to give and Gary Cahill had to deflect a Danny Graham shot wide in the closing minutes.

"I think physically and mentally when you have two games against Manchester United it takes a lot out of the players, but it's no excuse," Di Matteo reflected. Failure to learn from this telling week will leave Chelsea facing a long and cold winter.

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