It was a night that will go down in the history books. The football equivalent of David beating Goliath. Every bet hedged against the pesky Englishmen who dared to upset the European apple cart. Tactical skullduggery was their weapon of choice in the first bout for which they were universally condemned. A counterattack lay in wait on the streets of Catalonia where the distinguished natives yearned to educate their adversary on how to conduct themselves appropriately on the grandest stage of them all. Yet the much prophesied Barcelona backlash failed to materialise. Having carved a reputation as the supreme authority of our beautiful game their shortcomings on this occasion proved exasperating.
For the millions of viewers glued to their television sets and computer screens there was something amiss. The La Liga champions looked a shadow of the team that cruised to this stage of the competition going about their business with an audible swagger. The captivating football they usually brought to the table was absent as it was last week in West London. Chelsea stifled their play with a defensive game plan plucked from the mind of a military strategist. In reality it was the handy work of a man charged with steadying the Stamford Bridge boat after it had been caught in rough seas. Roberto Di Matteo not only guided the Blues into calmer waters following a stormy eight-months under the stewardship of Andre Villas-Boas but got them ticking along at a considerable rate of knots.
He came in for a great deal of criticism for the deployment of an ‘anti-football’ game plan in the first leg that saw side sit back and soak up the pressure from their Spanish counterparts and hitting them on the break when the opportunity presented itself. The general consensus was that the Italian would bow to censure, alter his strategy and go for broke in the return leg. That turned out to be a fallacy as Di Matteo set out his stall in exactly the same manner with identical results. Barcelona failed to adapt their style of play to break down the stubborn resistance of their Premier League opponents. It was another tactical triumph for Chelsea’s interim boss.
More so it displayed the 41-year-old’s headstrong disposition that has transformed the Blues during his short time in the dugout. Despite being painted as lambs to a Catalan slaughter Di Matteo stuck to his guns and it ultimately paid dividends. With stints at MK:Dons and West Brom making up his managerial CV there were concerns that he’d struggle to exert his authority over a divided dressing room teeming with inner-circles and millionaire egos. It was well documented that the experienced players disagreed with the methods employed by Villas-Boas which ultimately led to his demise. However the former Chelsea midfielder has carried off something his Portuguese predecessor failed to accomplish and repaired the fissures that divided the fractured squad.
That new found togetherness has manifested itself on the pitch and hit it’s peak at the Nou Camp on Tuesday evening. Even when Di Matteo lost Gary Cahill to injury in the early stages before seeing captain John Terry sent off he galvanised his team ensuring they remained disciplined and focused on the task in hand. Egotism was a plague during the AVB era but his successor has instilled a ‘all for one, one for all’ mentality that has brought the best out a group of players allegedly difficult to manage. If you’re looking for evidence of that new selfless approach look no further than Didier Drogba. With Chelsea pinned onto the edge of their penalty by a wave after wave of Barca pressure the Ivorian sacrificed his attacking obligations to pitch in at the back.
More of the same will be required when they meet Bayern Munich in the final at the Germans’ home ground. With key figures Terry, Branislav Ivanovic, Ramires and Raul Meireles all missing due to suspension the likelihood of Chelsea returning home with the famous trophy have been severely hindered. But in Di Matteo they have a manager who has built up a serious momentum and proved to be a revitalising presence in West London. Whilst owner Roman Abramovich’s dream of Champions League glory he has a man that has taken his club beyond the realms of expectation. It was another interim boss that lead the Blues to the final of Europe’s elite club competition in 2008.
Avram Grant’s services were ultimately dispensed with after his side lost out to Manchester United in a penalty shootout on a rainy night in Moscow. The fate of Di Matteo has yet to be determined but you’d like to think Abramovich might have learnt a lesson or two after sacking seven managers in the nine-years since his takeover. One thing is for sure the Italian deserves a chance to build his own Chelsea dynasty after putting himself on the cusp of providing the trophy his employer craves the most.