Roberto Di Matteo is currently sitting rather comfortably in the Chelsea hot seat. Since taking over the helm at the Bridge he’s steered Roman’s expensive fleet of aging stars away from troubled waters, towards the latter stages of both the FA Cup and the Champions League. His latest conquest at Villa Park sealed a sixth win in his eighth match in charge and leaves the Blues just five points adrift of Arsenal and Tottenham. However, despite an impressive start it remains to be seen whether the Italian will be a realistic candidate for the job come the end of the season.
The appointment of Di Matteo was the solution to the clubs spectacular plight, as someone who had witnessed the implosion first hand (but arguably helped contribute to it), he was perfectly placed to start implementing the correct changes almost immediately. A visible rebellion against the reign and managerial style of Andre Villas-Boas has seemingly helped win the affection of the senior players, but it would be unfair to claim that the ‘old guard’ are now running the show.
Chelsea’s recent heroics in Portugal featured a starting line-up that excluded the likes of Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and Michael Essien. This team selection appears to imitate the same philosophies installed under AVB but Di Matteo’s superior relationship with the players would have allowed to him to justify his decisions more effectively, helping to relieve any frustrations and inspire those in the first-team.
It strikes me that AVB was far too radical and uncompromising during his spell at Chelsea. His desire to install a quick tempo playing style amongst a squad of aging legs coupled with the expectations of being the second (Special) coming meant he would always face an uphill struggle.
Even the most optimistic and hard-nosed supporter would have agreed that a transformation was needed at the club but the manner in which AVB exiled such players as Frank Lampard and Nicholas Anelka was perhaps a little ruthless. Should he have looked more closely at rivals Manchester United he would have seen the impact and continued influence certain senior players still have despite their aging years.
Talking of ruthlessness, chairman Roman Abramovich has dispatched a remarkable seven managers in just eight years. He’s clearly a man with little patience and needs no encouragement when it comes down to making the big decisions. Carlo Ancelotti couldn’t escape his wrath despite guiding the club to the double during his first season in charge and so with such a demanding boss constantly looming over him, how can Di Matteo prove himself worthy in the eyes of Chelsea’s billionaire owner?
It’s no secret that Abramovich has become somewhat obsessed in his pursuit of Champions League glory, appearing to ignore all previous achievements if performances on European soil aren’t up to scratch. The highlight of Di Matteo’s brief spell in charge has unquestionably been the inspired comeback against Napoli, which he will surely have highlighted on his CV when he slips it under Roman’s door. Should Chelsea see off Benfica they will be rewarded with a semi-final appearance against either Barcelona or AC Milan. The football world has already been salivating over the prospect of a 2009 semi-final ‘rematch’ between Barcelona and Chelsea that would perhaps gift Di Matteo with his make or break opportunity.
Alongside their resurgence in the Champions League, the Blues also find themselves gearing up for an eagerly anticipated FA Cup semi-final clash with London rivals Spurs. This competition represents the club’s best chance of obtaining silverware and would enable Di Matteo to equal the accomplishments of previous ‘interim’ manager Guus Hiddink.
Despite Blues fans hoping the gleam of a trophy will disguise their disappointing season, few would argue that a top four finish in the league remains the priority. With Tottenham and Arsenal currently trading blows in third and fourth place, Chelsea and surprise package Newcastle lie in wait just five points behind, fervently waiting to take advantage of any potential slip-ups.
Looking beyond performances on the pitch, the backing of the senior players could prove pivotal in deciding the fate of Di Matteo. Fellow fans favourite Marcel Desailly has offered his support by suggesting that his former teammate could be the best architect to conduct Chelsea’s long-term renovation process.
“We are already hearing other coaches to come. Big names. Small names. Young. Old. But maybe the secret is to keep Di Matteo. Direct him on the mission and the vision the club have and see what is going to happen.
“I really think that they should give him a chance and I hope he [Abramovich] will keep Di Matteo.” (Daily Mail)
If Di Matteo does make it onto Roman’s shortlist then he’s likely to encounter a number of intimidating opponents. Jose Mourinho is undeniably the supporter’s choice but I can only see him leaving a team of Madrid’s stature should he triumph in both La Liga and the Champions League. Pep Guardiola remains wildly optimistic and Bilbao boss Marcelo Biesla perhaps represents a similar risk to AVB, given his lack of Premier League experience. Rafa Benitez has also found himself being linked in the tabloids but I feel this was largely due to his ability to get the best out of the faltering Fernando Torres.
Whatever the outcome of Chelsea’s remaining fixtures, Di Matteo has defied the expectations of many and will perhaps be one of the few managers who can leave the Bridge with their head held high.
Join me on Twitter @theunusedsub where I’ve been watching ‘that’ Iniesta goal, struggling to comprehend both the outstanding technique and the fact that it was Barcelona’s only shot on target that night.