Apr 4, 2012

Why di Matteo is not just a puppet?

Roberto di Matteo
To start with, I was not very excited when Roberto di Matteo was appointed the caretaker manager of Chelsea. True that he has been an important figure at the club as a player, his most memorable moment being the fastest goal scorer in an FA Cup tie (which has since been broken by Louis Saha) and maybe, the fact that he has never lost at Old Trafford. Still, I was not a big fan of him. Add to it, the fact that he was fired as the manager of West Brom less than a year back (In fact, his stint included a 6-0 thrashing at Stamford Bridge). And the circumstances of his appointment were not something you would call nice. The youngest manager in the Premier League had just been fired by the Czarist Abramovich, even though he had been sleeping in his office for the last two days, trying to bring the team back together. Exactly one month has passed since that fateful day.

Gianfranco Zola came up with a statement soon in support of his previous team mate at Chelsea saying his stubborn attitude was going to bring him success at Chelsea. But he was quick to add that he would most certainly not like to join the coaching staff at the club, where he is the undisputed legend.

It was against Birmingham, his first day out with the boys. An FA Cup rematch against the Championship team, a win was needed badly to boost the dying spirits of the players. It was a hard earned victory, but a victory nonetheless, as the man with the round yet fierce face, focused eyes, looked on. The most eventful point was when Fernando Torres refused to take a penalty that Juan Mata had offered him, in spite of the fact that the scorers had eluded him for over five months. The biggest task ahead of di Matteo was to change the under-confident El Niño to the lightning quick forward who was, once upon a time, feared by defences all around the globe.

Villas Boas: He tried his best!
The biggest problem under Villas Boas was the patience that his plans demanded from others. He was building a fortress, but it could not be done immediately, something which Abramovich couldn't tolerate. His policies required time, and unfortunately, that included benching the old guard. The win in the FA Cup was followed by another extremely tough match, a 1-0 win against Stoke City. This was the match that saw the somewhat dimmed Frank Lampard get back to life, along with a solid performance by the returning John Terry and the lone goal being scored by arguably Chelsea's best striker in recent years, Didier Drogba. This match marked the return of the old guard and they haven't disappointed since. It is possible that they were just jealous of Villas Boas, with his boyish good looks and tailored suits, but what exactly was wrong is very hard to tell.

After the win against Napoli
However, the best moment for Chelsea fans came on the night of 14th March, when di Matteo steered Chelsea to a 4-1 win over Napoli to overturn the 3-1 deficit in the away leg (becoming only the fourth team in 45 attempts to overturn a first leg deficit of two goals or more.), with the names of Drogba, Terry and Lampard on the score-sheet. It was just a perfect match that Chelsea could come up with.

The next match was perhaps equally important as it saw the man with the £ 50 million price tag get a brace, even though it was against a team from a lower division. Something which must have been an important factor in firing the two previous managers of Chelsea. This was followed by a defeat to Manchester City (owing to a questionable refereeing decision) and a draw against Tottenham, where each team matched the other in every possible department.

El Niño gets troubles the scorers, finally!
Till now, you might have developed the idea that it was actually the trio of Lampard, Terry and Drogba was controlling the dressing room and di Matteo was just a puppet. Well, he proved his doubters (including me) wrong with the squad he came up with against the away leg against Benfica in the Champion's League Quarter Finals. With all three of them benched, and a very cautious 4-2-3-1 against a side which did not pose much threat on paper except the Paraguayan Cardozo up front. Chelsea eventually won 1-0 with probably the Benfica fans wondering that they did not deserve to lose, but did not deserve to win either.

Another milestone was the goal scored by Fernando Torres in the following match against a depleted Aston Villa without captain Petrov battling leukemia. The coolly taken finish brought back memories of the lanky forward who scored the winner for Spain against Germany in the 2008 Euro Cup final. It is still early days to comment on Torres' form, but it certainly looks good.

The new manager has, in a short span of a month, been not only able to gain the respect of the entire squad, but perhaps the owner as well. However, the performance of Chelsea in the Champions league is gonna be extremely crucial for di Matteo, if he dreams of getting the permanent job.

Last time Chelsea were under a caretaker manager (Hiddink, 08-09 season), Chelsea showed a steep rise in form, motivation and commitment. You may call this luck as this is history repeating itself, or maybe it is just that di Matteo might just click for the club who has struggled to find someone since the Special One. Had someone asked me this last month, I would have denied this but I do feel that Chelsea may be in the market this summer for a new manager, with the UEFA fair play regulations kicking in soon, hanging on to di Matteo might just not be a bad idea.

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