The eighth manager of the Roman Abramovich era, Roberto Di Matteo is overseeing a remarkable upturn in fortune at Chelsea. He seems to have salvaged a season that was threatening to unravel under Andre Villas-Boas. With a FA Cup semi-final and a Champions League semi-final berth secure, Di Matteo has not only stabilized the a club in free fall, he has restored belief among his players and fans. The season has the potential to be Chelsea’s finest and yet, his claim to the throne of Abramovich’s empire is a weak one.
After the sacking of Villas-Boas on March 4, Di Matteo was installed as interim manager. Expectations were not high, with a Champions League second leg against Italian powerhouses on the horizon – Chelsea 3-1 down from the first leg and needing a performance of epic proportions to have any chance of securing a passage through to the last eight of the competition.
Di Matteo brought back the old guard – Lampard, Drogba and a resurgent Terry were all asked to deliver once again. And deliver they did. Didier Drogba rolled back the years to produce his best display of the season, Lampard was the lynchpin in the Chelsea midfield and John Terry, a rock at the back, produced another vital captain’s goal as the Di Matteo reign gathered momentum.
He even managed to get the much maligned Fernando Torres firing, the Spaniard netting twice in a 5-2 thrashing of Leicester in the FA Cup sixth round. He has looked like a player who is afraid of shooting in front of goal but statistics show that his ratio of shots taken per game under Di Matteo is much higher than under former manager Villas-Boas.
Following the triumph over Leicester, Chelsea’s hopes of breaking into the Premier League top four faltered when they were put to the sword at Manchester City. A goalless draw with Tottenham in their next game had Chelsea fans wondering if the only way Chelsea can clinch a place in the Champions League next season is by winning the competition itself.
But Di Matteo found himself on the end of some well deserved praise when he tinkered with the Chelsea squad for the trip to Benfica in the Champions League quarter final first leg. Out with the old, he preferred the pace of Salomon Kalou and Fernando Torres to Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba. And the interim boss was rewarded as the Spaniard set up Kalou for the solitary goal of the game.
But Chelsea made hard work of it in the second leg against a changed Benfica line-up and were almost made to pay for the lack of cutting edge in front of goal. When Javi Garcia struck with six minutes left, the already muted Stamford Bridge feel into an eerie silence as ripples of panic spread among the Chelsea faithful. It was nothing more than Benfica deserved, who, despite being reduced to 10 men in the first half following the dismissal of Maxi Pereira, continued to play some delightful, aesthetic and slick free-flowing football and threatened to dump Chelsea out. Raul Meireles sealed the result deep into stoppage time but the general emotion sweeping around the Bridge was relief rather than triumphant joy – a semi final berth confirmed albeit in unconvincing fashion.
The mighty Barcelona lie in wait, Chelsea already looking for “revenge” after they felt they were cheated out of a final berth in 2009-10 when the Catalans got the perceived majority of calls from the referee that evening (and then went on to score in injury time). With Chelsea now five points behind fourth placed Spurs in the Premier League, the signs do not bode well for Chelsea. Roman Abramovich will be seething if Chelsea fail to qualify for Europe’s most prestigious club competition, a personal dream remaining unfulfilled.
Di Matteo is in the mould of Avram Grant, a solid yet unspectacular manager, a manager who has salvaged a dying season yet is behind Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola and even John Terry in the race for the permanent role in the managerial hot seat. He lacks the charm his predecessors had, with dull and deadpan press conferences not helping his case. It has been said he holds his players’ respect, but he is not quite the orator that Mourinho once was.
One cannot see him remaining Chelsea manager come August, not unless he manages to deliver the Champions League itself to Abramovich. He will have to outmaneuver the mighty Guardiola and perhaps Mourinho himself, a task that might prove to be too steep for the former MK Dons and West Brom man. He has certainly added some impressive achievements to his CV this season, but his future, as a manager, lies away from the Bridge.