Alan Parry of Sky Sports summed it up perfectly on Tuesday night, stating: “Three years ago today Roberto Di Matteo was managing MK Dons in a match against Walsall, they lost. Now he’s beaten Barcelona.” The veteran pundit was of course referring to Chelsea’s incredible victory over Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final after they’d played out a staggering 2-2 draw. That wasn’t even the beginning of it – Di Matteo’s lions in blue had Gary Cahill taken off with a hamstring strain, John Terry red carded for a knee in the back of Alexis Sanchez and, of course, they had to recover from a two-goal deficit against one of the most dynamic teams European football has seen for years. Oh, and they survived a Lionel Messi penalty miss.
You could say that luck was on Chelsea’s side on that fateful night or you could just as easily say that they earned that luck. Even so, despite Barcelona dominating possession over both legs and creating a number of chances, they found it increasingly difficult to break Chelsea’s stubborn resistance. Not only did they have resistance over both legs, they also showed incredible spirit and belief – something which was severely lacking in the earlier stages of this season. It was a show of unity, a show of togetherness for a manager who the players seem to be happy playing for. Their victory over Barca wasn’t the first time in this Champions League campaign that the Blues have had to dig in – they fought back from a 3-1 first leg deficit in the second round to see off Napoli in an incredible 4-1 win at the Bridge. These are players fighting tooth and nail for a much sought after European Cup.
As Fernando Torres rounded Victor Valdes in the 91st minute of Tuesday’s epic semi-final and he celebrated euphorically with his team-mates, you can hedge a safe bet that a number of football supporters – even ones who aren’t Chelsea fans – would have been celebrating with them. And it’s not just because they were the underdogs or because they’re simply a British side battling on foreign soil, it’s because under Roberto Di Matteo Chelsea are actually (whisper it) quite a likeable team – how could they not be with such an affable man in charge? As the 41-year Italian interim manager ran onto the pitch amidst the post-match celebrations and fervently jumped around like an excitable youth, it was hard not to share his glory. This is a man who was swiftly fired by West Brom last year when the going got tough (despite guiding them to promotion) and who has proved, in a short space of time, what he can do with a team of egos such as Chelsea’s.
Granted, there is a lot of work to do. Chelsea’s league performance this season has left a lot to be desired; they still have a tough job to finish in the top four and make next season’s Champions League (should they not win it in Munich on May 19th of course). Didier Drogba is most likely on his way in the summer and with a number 9 who has struggled to find goals, whomever may be in charge has a job on trying to replace the Ivorian. The very last thing the west London club needs is unrest and uncertainty – to avoid playing the waiting game on the managerial front it would make sense to offer the role to Di Matteo on a rolling contract basis. The Italian has proven in a short spell at the helm that he is capable of managing this group of players; he’s guided them to the FA Cup and Champions League finals and has only lost once in his 15 games in charge. Abramovich may well opt for a household name, someone with more experience at a top club but I would argue that Di Matteo has the potential to be a decent manager and should be given a crack of the whip. After all, how many can say they’ve toppled the mighty Barcelona?
Roberto Di Matteo has put himself in the frame at least by guiding his team to some key victories in the last month. Will it be enough to persuade Abramovich to employ from within? Only time will well. But while you ponder it, Roman, here’s some food for thought; these are the words of Frank Lampard, spoken on Tuesday night: “What he’s done is no coincidence. He’s created an atmosphere, he’s got players playing, the camp’s very happy and you can see that in the results.” Maybe the boss should listen to his players.
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