Di Matteo: Terry is still leader
Roberto Di Matteo has insisted John Terry could still be held up as Chelsea's "leader" as the club's tarnished captain prepared to don not one, but two armbands in the midst of his racism ban.
Terry looked certain tonight to be recalled for today's Champions League clash at Shakhtar Donetsk, which comes one game into his now-infamous four-match domestic suspension.
The 31-year-old defender will captain the side after Chelsea controversially refused to strip him of the honour over the language he used towards Anton Ferdinand a year ago.
And in timing that could hardly be more ironic, the defender will also wear an armband bearing the slogan 'Unite Against Racism' as part of a Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE) campaign scheduled for this week.
These are precisely the kinds of duties captains are expected to perform and there are likely to be plenty more of them before Terry's Chelsea career is out.
And whatever he does in the interim, he will remain 'Captain, Leader, Legend' for the fans who fashion banners about him and a pariah for those who insist there is no way back from the latest scandal to engulf him.
His manager understandably had one foot firmly in the former camp.
"He has realised that he used language that was inappropriate and he has apologised for that and has certainly learned from that issue,'' Di Matteo said.
"And with good performances and good behaviour in the future he should still be looked upon as the leader for our club."
Terry has never had a problem with the nuts and bolts of leadership, even under the most extreme pressure.
Indeed, it has become a cliche that he saves his best performances for when he is in the eye of a storm.
But never has he faced a bigger test of character than the aftermath of his Football Association guilty verdict.
Di Matteo said: "I've never been concerned about picking him.
"He's been able to focus on the games and that's what the players love to do, playing football and it's good for them that they can focus on that."
He added: "What is common for players is that, even if they have family problems or some kind of issues outside in their private life, they tend to be able to focus on the football because it kind of just helps them."
The football is the one area where Chelsea are doing almost everything right this season.
Saturday's 4-2 Barclays Premier League win at Tottenham was arguably the most stunning in a string of ominous victories for the European champions.
It was also the ideal way to start a punishing run of fixtures that takes in today's match and two potentially-defining contests against Manchester United.
Di Matteo has so far handled the twin on- and off-field pressures as deftly as any Chelsea manager since Jose Mourinho.
Certainly better than Carlo Ancelotti, who sometimes struggled to sleep, and Andre Villas-Boas, who reportedly resorted to sleeping at the club's training ground.
"I've had a good baptism, I have to say, from the day I took over last season," Di Matteo said.
"You just deal with the pressure. We don't get time to enjoy anything, you know. After the win on Saturday, by 10-o'clock in the evening, you're thinking already about Shakhtar.
"And 7-7.30 Sunday morning, you're back in the office. That's maybe the only downfall.
"You can't even take in victories like that and the performance. You're switching straight on to the next game."
After a brief pause, he added: "I'm sleeping very well, though.''
That may change if Chelsea repeat the slump they have traditionally suffered at this point of a season and which have cost them dearly in the past.
"I've obviously looked at the past seasons,'' Di Matteo said.
"That's why I talk about waiting til Christmas to see where we stand. We will have to see.
"We have done everything in our power and planning that we think will help us to get through this period.''
Shakhtar are more than equipped to kickstart such a bad run, having won their last 21 league matches and 15 of their 16 games this season of, taking four points from their first two Champions League outings to lie joint top of Group E with Chelsea.
With Juventus just two points behind, it is looking like a three-way battle to reach the knockout stage.
Di Matteo said: "You will probably need more than the 10 points that normally qualifies you."
Juan Mata hailed Di Matteo as the "perfect manager'' for Chelsea after the Italian helped them shrug off the latest crisis at the club and stay on course for another glorious season.
Di Matteo's near eight months in charge of the Blues have been arguably the most turbulent in their history but he has somehow managed unprecendented success while at the helm.
Having ended Chelsea's agonising wait for Champions League glory, Di Matteo has led them to a four-point lead at the top of the Barclays Premier League and transformed them into one of the great entertainers of the game.
His success is all the more remarkable considering he took charge of a dispirited squad, which was on course to record the club's worst season of the Roman Abramovich era, and has since had to contend with the fallout from the Terry racism scandal.
Chelsea managers have crumbled under far less pressure than that which has been piled on Di Matteo.
And Mata, who has been the club's star of the season and arguably the best player in England on current form, could not praise the former Stamford Bridge midfielder highly enough.
He said: "Robbie knows very well the team, Robbie knows very well the club as well. He is a legend here.
"And now, as a manager, he connects very well with the team, in every meeting, in every speech, he does deep inside every one of us, talking about every game.
"I think it's very important to be ready for every competition, for the Premier League and now for the Champions League.
"He knows how important it is for the club to play these kinds of games, to win again the Champions League like last season.
"So, I think for us, he's the perfect manager."
Chelsea are not short of 'legends' in the current squad, with Frank Lampard, Petr Cech and even Terry firmly in that category.
Mata may be only in his second season at Stamford Bridge but he will surely join those ranks if he maintains the kind of form that has seen him score six goals - and set up many more - in his last five games.
"We have three or four players who are very, very important for us,'' Mata said.
"They are legends now at the club because of what they did during eight, nine, 10 years.
"And they are our captains as well, so they are the present and still the future of Chelsea.
"On the other hand, we have young players, for example like me, who want to be as good as them in the history of Chelsea.
"I wish I will be like Frank Lampard or like John Terry in the next years. This is my second year at Chelsea. I really enjoyed the first one.
"It was one of the best in the history of Chelsea. But I think the best is still to come, hopefully.
"We are now enjoying (life) with young and with experienced players and I think there is a balance that we have in the dressing room."
Chelsea are still basking in the glory of their impressive win at Tottenham, but Shakhtar boss Mircea Lucescu warned the Blues his in-form side are a completely different prospect to Spurs.
"We are also different from Tottenham these days,'' he said. "I believe that our team's level is higher.
"This is true of both each player's individual skill and the game organisation.
"I think that we surpass Tottenham in terms of those qualities."