Chelsea had just lost to West Bromwich Albion. Their 1-0 reverse to Roy Hodgson’s side saw them slip out of the top four. It also saw them extend what had been a miserable run of results; one win, three draws and three losses in all competitions. There was talk of mutiny within the squad. The reported discontent was becoming more and more apparent. Andre Villa-Boas, the manager at the time, was starting to look beleaguered by it all. It had already been a poor season, full of dips of form briefly revived by a few good results here and there. But, this time there was real concern that it would all fall apart completely.
Fast forward two months and how different the picture looks. Chelsea are in the final of the FA Cup. They thrashed Tottenham 5-1 on their way to the grand finale at Wembley. They beat Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final. They then went to Camp Nou and finished the job by earning a 2-2 draw – with ten men for the best part. They will now play in the final in Munich. The players seem happy again too. The club’s stalwarts, the likes of Frank Lampard, John Terry, Ashley Cole and Didier Drogba are proving they are not finished just yet. But, perhaps most astonishingly, Fernando Torres has scored four goals in his last two matches. That is right, Torres.
It has been a remarkable turnaround. Strangely, it is one that bares parallels with a similar situation at Stamford Bridge three years ago. Luis Felipe Scolari had just been sacked for his failure to maintain Chelsea’s push for the league title. The experienced, well-travelled and highly regarded Guus Hiddink was brought in. As ever, he was superb. The Dutchman ensured a top three finish and guided the Blues to victories over Juventus, Liverpool and Arsenal. He also came extremely close to taking Chelsea to the Champions League final, only missing out due to some highly controversial referring decisions made in the now infamous second leg tie with Barcelona. His win ratio was exceptional too; 15 wins in 21 matches.
This time, however, it has not been Hiddink that has helped turn things around at the Bridge. Nor has it been anyone with a comparable managerial CV to that of the former Real Madrid, Valencia, South Korea and PSV Eindhoven coach. Instead, this time it has been a manager whose greatest achievement prior to the role was in guiding West Bromwich Albion from the Championship division back into the Premier League. His name; Roberto Di Matteo.
No one would have thought that two months after stepping up to the role from assistant coach, Di Matteo’s side would be on the brink of a unique double. But, they are. And, he deserves the credit for it.
One of Di Matteo’s first tasks as head coach was to overturn a 3-1 deficit to Napoli in their Champions League return leg at Stamford Bridge. Few thought that he and his side could do it. But, they did. The Italian put his faith in John Terry, Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard to get the job done – three players that under Villas-Boas were to varying degrees marginalised. Tellingly, these three players all scored one goal each as Chelsea romped to a 4-1 victory in extra time – enough to see them progress to the semi-finals.
Another of his tasks was to steer the Blues back towards a top four finish. After just one loss in eight Premier League matches, they are now just one point behind fourth-placed Tottenham. With three games to go there is still time. A win over Newcastle on Wednesday night and they will be well on their way.
Then there was that emphatic victory at Wembley over the Hotspurs in the FA Cup. Five goals and five different goal-scorers; it was night that all but confirmed that Chelsea were back; back to their old best.
What happened next no Chelsea fan, nor Di Matteo himself, would have ever imagined in their wildest dreams. They eliminated Barcelona from the Champions League. Their 1-0 victory at home followed by their 2-2 draw at the Nou Camp, a result achieved in the most dramatic of circumstances, was enough to see them advance to final to be played on May 19.
Pushed to the side by Villas Boas, Di Matteo’s trust in Chelsea’ old guard, the likes of John Terry, Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba, has been key to his success. Boosted to again be a major part of the manager’s plans, this select group of players have put in some stirring performances. And, they are not thanking themselves either.
“He’s (Di Matteo) been magnificent with the team, he’s speaking to the team, he knows how to put his ideas around to the players. His man-management is very good,” were the words of John Obi Mikel. Lampard, one of the players that went public about his discontent with Villas-Boas, has said that he “can’t speak highly enough of him (Di Matteo)”. Ivanovic has been equally impressed, having been quoted, “he is a great manager and we enjoy working with him”.
While Di Matteo has reinstalled the club’s veteran players to the starting team, he still has managed to rotate players without causing consternation amongst the ranks. This is a fine art. In any situation it is not easy to do. Given what had come before him under Villas-Boas, the situation he found himself was even more complicated. But, as Gary Cahill has pointed out, “the way that he’s used the players for different games has worked fantastically.”
Di Matteo has not only earned plaudits from his players, but, from his peers too. Avram Grant, a former Chelsea manager, believes that “Roberto deserves one more year, at least, because he has done a good job with this team,” while Mark Hughes, speaking after his side’s 6-1 defeat to Chelsea, said “he has done his prospects no harm whatsoever. I think he has done everything that could be asked of him and that is credit to him because it was difficult circumstances as he was involved with the previous management team but he has come through."
Di Matteo has ‘come through’, and in flying colours too. Yet, whether he will be offered a permanent role come next season is still unclear. Given Roman Abramovich’s record; you would not bet on it.
But, the Swiss-born former Italy international deserves a chance. He has been exceptional in the most trying of circumstances. What else does he need to do? Win the Champions League? Even then he probably would not be sure of his future. Though, it would definitely aid his cause.
In addition to have proven himself fit enough for one of the toughest jobs in football, Di Matteo possesses something few, if any, other capable managers have. He is a former Chelsea player. And not just any player either. He was part of the Chelsea team that enjoyed one of its most successful periods in the club’s history. They were the days of Gianfranco Zola, Gianluca Vialli, Ruud Gullit, Frank LeBouef, Dennis Wise and Marcel Desailly. It was a team made up of cosmopolitan stars. Perhaps the first real team like this in the Premier League. And they were successful too. During Di Matteo’s years at the club they won seven trophies, including two FA Cups, a UEFA Super Cup and a UEFA Cup Winner’s Cup.
Di Matteo has blue blood and it is not because he was an Azzurri international for four years. He is a Chelsea legend. For this reason, the players can relate to him and they respect him for what he achieved as a player. And, now as a manager.
But, most of all, they know what the club means to him and this has helped remind them what the club means to them. It is about showing “commitment for the shirt”, in the words of Terry, and that “we (the players) have to fight for it”. This, Terry continues, “has been the message to the lads", and, it seems to made all the difference.