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Apr 4, 2012

Nervous Chelsea edge through

He has presided over a revival that has rescued Chelsea's season from an apparently irretrievable collapse, yet Roberto di Matteo is still viewed as a rank outsider to land the position on a permanent basis.

• Mourinho: Chelsea won't reach final
• Relief for Lampard
• Palmer: Di Matteo fails to convince
• Champions League review
• Champions League gallery Photo Gallery

As Di Matteo added this unconvincing and lacklustre Champions League quarter-final win against 10-man Benfica to his accomplishments of sealing a spot in the FA Cup semi-finals later this month and improved Premier League results, the Italian must believe he has earned the right to be added to the list of viable contenders.

However, Jose Mourinho, Laurent Blanc, Fabio Capello, Pep Guardiola and even skipper John Terry are still considered by those in the know to be more serious candidates to secure the Chelsea job, with the current incumbent not fitting the profile this club seek in their leader.

Accused by some of being arrogant, by others of displaying wildly inflated over-confidence and reportedly less than popular with the players he has managed in his brief coaching career at MK Dons, West Bromwich Albion and now Chelsea, Di Matteo hardly appears to fit the bill of a Blues manager in waiting.

Due in part to his indifferent reputation, the suggestion is that his role in Chelsea's recovery has been somewhat peripheral, as the club's fabled 'old guard' take the credit for lifting the squad off the canvas.

Meanwhile, Di Matteo has been cast in the same dim light that once shone on Avram Grant, as he came within a penalty kick of winning the Champions League as Blues boss back in 2008 and took little or no credit for the run to the Moscow final.

With Chelsea's hierarchy boasting a track record of hiring proven trophy winners, it seems improbable that their quietly spoken caretaker boss will be offered the keys to Roman Abramovich's kingdom - yet he is manoeuvring himself into a position few could have imagined.

Andre Villas-Boas was sacked as Chelsea manager on March 4 and now, precisely one month later, Di Matteo is preparing for a run of fixtures that offer the potential to turn this apparently doomed season into one of the club's finest.

Admittedly, it is hard to make a case to suggest they will beat Tottenham in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley and then see off European champions Barcelona a few days later after this drab, nervous and painfully unconvincing display against Benfica. Chelsea's wastefulness in front of goal and lack of urgency nearly cost them their place in the last four.

The visitors started this game brightly and forced Chelsea onto the back foot from the off as they looked to get back into the tie, yet this contest appeared to end when the home side took a lead through a 21st minute Frank Lampard penalty and Maxi Pereira was sent off for a second yellow card before half-time.

Instead, Chelsea's inability to finish off their opponents despite a host of second half chances encouraged Benfica to believe they could salvage a remarkable victory and when Javi Garcia scored five minutes from time, a sense of panic rippled around the traditionally muted Chelsea fans.

It was not until the much-maligned Raul Meireles led a 92nd minute breakaway that concluded with the Portuguese international firing a decisive goal into the top corner of the Benfica net that the low-key Chelsea celebrations could begin in earnest.

"We knew before this game that it would be a difficult task to get through to the semi-finals and I was not surprised by the challenge Benfica put up," said the Italian, before offering up his familiar mix of defensive and evasive retorts to perfectly reasonable questions about his long-term future and the upcoming semi-final against Barcelona.

"Let us enjoy this game first and my focus is all on Wigan on Saturday," was Di Matteo's first bid to wriggle out of talking about the eagerly-anticipated meeting with Barca, before eventually offering this low-key assessment of his next opponents. "They are one of the best teams in Europe I would say and have some wonderful players, but we are happy to play against them. As for my future, I look forward to the next game. That is all I have on my mind."

It was another deadpan, somewhat dismissive public appearance from Di Matteo and you cannot help but feel he is missing a golden opportunity to present himself in a more appealing manner. If he was coming across to the watching world as a charming character, the bandwagon to see him get the Chelsea job would be gathering momentum, but few are promoting his cause.

Instead, Di Matteo finds himself needing to win the Champions League to have any chance of remaining as Chelsea manager and to do that, he may well need to outsmart Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho in touchline duels that will test his credentials to the full. Few will back him to pull it off.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Pablo Aimar - The veteran Argentine general bossed this game and linked Benfica's slick passing superbly. His team-mates could not come up with the finishing touches to put Chelsea under more pressure.

HOW DID HE DO THAT? Ramires looked certain to score when he found himself a yard from goal with an open net at his mercy in the second half. Only the Brazilian can explain how he didn't convert the chance, as he seemed to jump over the ball when glory seemed certain.

MOAN OF THE MATCH: Benfica's players spoiled some of the attractive attacking play with an ugly desire to dive and get their opponents into trouble with the match officials at every opportunity. Some of the players in red fell to the ground in a manner that suggested they had suffered career threatening injuries, only to leap top their feet seconds later.

BENFICA VERDICT: They had greater number of shots at goal and looked the more threatening side for most of the game, yet they head back to Portugal lamenting what might have been. Had they performed with a little more gusto in the first leg of this tie, they may be looking forward to a semi-final against Barcelona. "My players leave with their heads held high," said Benfica boss Jorge Jesus.

CHELSEA VERDICT: Those of us who have been present for thrilling Champions League nights at this venue will confirm that this was one of the more underwhelming evenings of European football at the Bridge. Chelsea got the job done in the end, but this was as unconvincing as they have been since Di Matteo took over as interim boss.

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