The mess that was Chelsea under Andre Villas-Boas evaporated under the man who’s been given interim command of the Club. Under Roberto di Matteo, the Blues look like a force reinvigorated. There is no micromanagement where every aspect of the players’ lives was controlled. No more attempts to field every single question from the media. No more alienation between staff, squad and manager.
A month and a half ago, even the most gloriously optimistic of Chelsea fans would not have envisioned their side giving Barcelona a stern test. But today, that is exactly where they stand. Chelsea halted Barcelona in admirable fashion over the last week or so, actually beating the so-called best team in the world, earning themselves the right to play in this year’s Champions League final
Di Matteo has turned Chelsea’s season around. They are now guaranteed a place in the FA Cup and Champions League finals and still have the possibility of finishing fourth this season. A lot of Blues players – like Salomon Kalou – were ostracised under Villas-Boas, as the Ivorian wasn’t considered part of the Club’s future plans.
Didier Drogba was relegated to the bench, and Fernando Torres’ goalscoring woes continued as he cut a pitiable figure up front. Against Napoli at the San Paolo, where Chelsea’s elder statesmen were needed, Frank Lampard, Michael Essien and Ashley Cole were left fuming on the bench. The 3-1 scoreline in favour of the hosts only hastened Villas-Boas’ demise.
Under Di Matteo, with no overhauling of the Club hanging over his head, he has had the freedom to pick and rotate his squad as he pleases. Players who were alienated under Villas-Boas are now continually rotated. Torres is now ever so slowly rediscovering his goalscoring form, having improved his work rate. The best example to illustrate this would be the way Torres and Kalou combined for the latter to score against Benfica at the Stadium of Light.
The club were staring at a Champions League exit at the hands of Napoli, but at Stamford Bridge, they earned a 4-1 extra time win to propel themselves forward in the competition, meaning that Di Matteo had instantly endeared himself to the fans.
He then guided the Blues to a 5-2 win against Leicester in the FA Cup, which saw Torres score twice. A 3-1 aggregate quarter-final victory against SL Benfica was followed by a 5-1 demolition of Spurs at Wembley in the FA Cup semis.
In the fifteen games in which Di Matteo has been at the helm, the Blues have won ten and drawn four. Their only defeat came at the hands of ManchesterCityat the Etihad Stadium, giving the Londoners a 66% success rate under their caretaker boss.
Now they stand on the cusp of an unprecedented double: far more than what was a reasonable expectation of this team even four months ago. Roman Abramovich has always eyed the Champions League as the Crown in his collection of trophies, and there is a very real chance that a man who wasn’t on the Russian’s elite list of managers could just win him that.
Frank Lampard, who was frozen out of the squad under Villas-Boas, is now back to his best and can’t praise Di Matteo enough.
“He’s done the simple things and you can see the confidence in the team. The dressing room is buzzing. Results breed confidence and you can see the difference,” stressed the 33-year-old England international. “I can’t speak highly enough of what he’s done. He’s been incredible. And if we win the Champions League, then Robbie deserves it for what he’s done to the club. Nothing is impossible. It was meant to be impossible for Chelsea to beat Barcelona but we’ve done it. And what we’ve done since Robbie was put in charge of the team is no coincidence.”
Branislav Ivanovic, who was rumoured to be heading for the exit door as early as January, has thrown his weight behind the boss, saying, “The manager has done a great job. He has changed everything. He changed our minds and he gave us support and trust so he deserves a great performance like the one we gave in the Nou Camp. We’re not safe in the league for a place in the Champions League and we still have two finals to play. There is a lot of work ahead but we have a big squad and we will try to do everything.”
But reaching the final of the Champions League is no guarantee of permanent employment, as Avram Grant found out in 2008. The Israeli has backed Di Matteo to be given the job for another year. “He (Abramovich) has sacked many managers but until now the football was on the way down and the team was on the way down,” the current Partizan Belgrade manager told BBC Radio 5 Live. “I think in his eyes the team is on the way up and Di Matteo has a chance to continue.”
Indeed, should Di Matteo continue in the same vein as he has until now, don’t be surprised if the man who played 119 league games for Chelsea during a seven-year span at the club is still standing in the dugout next season.