Di Matteo the miracle worker! How Chelsea boss forced Abramovich's hand
21:22 GMT, 28 April 2012
The Andre Villas-Boas regime at Chelsea ended with arguments and confrontations.
Roberto di Matteo's began with a team
meeting. Nothing could better illustrate the respective approaches of
the two young managers to Chelsea's season and the vastly different
responses they have elicited from their players.
For Di Matteo, whose first act as
manager was to bring the squad together in a team meeting to make a pact
until the end of the season to help each other, this has been an
extraordinary three months.
One of the boys: Chelsea manager Robert Di Matteo
On Tuesday night, having masterminded the epic victory over the team widely regarded as the world's best, he disappeared alone along one of the underground tunnels in the Nou Camp stadium and up into the city above.
It was just 20 minutes after an epic win and the world was clamouring to congratulate him but Di Matteo took the time out to seek a quiet spot with mobile reception and speak to his family. 'I needed a few minutes on my own, just to calm down a little bit,' he said.
Those who know him well might suggest that he also took time to have a crafty cigarette – but he insisted not. 'Smoking is not healthy,' he said, with the hint of a smile.
If still wary, Di Matteo has been noticeably lighter and more assured since the Barcelona win. It is understood that he spoke with Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich on Thursday and it is likely that he has been told that his ability to unite the dressing room and his tactical acumen have put him in pole position to manage the side next season.
The alternatives, Joachim Loew and Laurent Blanc, are now battling against the man in possession, while Pep Guardiola is expected to stick to his resolve to take a sabbatical after quitting Barcelona.
Open to question: The new-look Di Matteo
So what has changed in Di Matteo, a manager who seemed to struggle to communicate when West Bromwich won just three in 18 games last season and was sacked with his side sliding to relegation
'Arrogant and aloof' were words often used to describe him. But at Chelsea in the last three months he has been anything but as he has led the club to the finals of both the Champions League and FA Cup.
Where Villas-Boas irked the players with his schoolmasterly tone, which was particularly hard to take from a 33-year-old who had never played the game, Di Matteo has been consensual.
If Villas-Boas was in the vicinity of a throwin, he would approach the player and instruct him where to pass. Such micro management infuriated. Di Matteo, by contrast, was relaxed when John Terry issued instructions from the bench in extra time against Napoli.
Where his predecessor was obsessed with copying Barcelona, Di Matteo has been expedient and, ironically, finished off not just the Catalans' Champions League campaign but also saw off Guardiola, Villas-Boas's ultimate role model.
Asked about Di Matteo's tactical changes this week, Branislav Ivanovic emphasised the lack of ideology. 'He doesn't try to put out a team with one strategy,' said Ivanovic. 'He does the opposite. If a player has a quality, he tries to show this quality on the pitch. The first couple of games when he started to be our coach was important to him and to us as well. We started to play trying to win. It doesn't matter how or which way.'
Happy days: Di Matteo celebrates in the Nou Camp
Indeed, those early games against Birmingham, Stoke and Napoli were crucial. Though many players would like him to get the job next season, he was not received with universal acclaim at first. After all he was tarnished by association with the old regime. To his credit, he had not distanced himself from Villas-Boas as tensions grew with the squad but had appeared supportive.
Yet, when given the chance to take over, everything changed. Suddenly, players felt they were not being treated like naughty schoolchildren but as adults; tactics which were previously imposed are now discussed as a team; and communication, which was cursory and confrontational, is now conciliatory.
Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard were summoned to see Villas-Boas just hours before the Champions League game in Naples to be told they were not playing. The only problem was that Villas-Boas had not communicated one-to-one with Lampard for three months before that, so the meeting ended in acrimony, as did Cole's. Di Matteo has left out senior players without rancour because, when they have been excluded, the long-term strategy was explained to them.
Salomon Kalou is a prime example of Di Matteo's man-management. Out of contract in the summer and virtually discarded by Villas-Boas, he has been used to great effect as a wide player with defensive responsibilities, both as a substitute and starting in important games against Benfica and the FA Cup semi-final against Tottenham.
Now he is likely to start the Champions League final. 'We have to give credit to Robbie,' said Kalou. 'You can see that he brought something new. He brought everyone together, not excluding any player. He gave a chance to everyone.'
Kalou has become a model team player. He cheerfully acknowledges the Champions League final might be his last game for the club but there is no bitterness. 'If it is my last game, it'd be nice to win,' he said. 'I've been at the club six years and the Champions League is the only thing I haven't won. I hope to have it on my CV!'
Way to go: Di Matteo outfoxed Barcelona's coach Pep Guardiola
Petr Cech rated Tuesday night's performance as the greatest in his time at the club. 'I don't think you can find in the history of the game a team who were 2-0 down, lost two central defenders and were down to 10 men against the best team in the world, yet managed to play that confidently,' he said.
Yet questions remain about Di Matteo and Chelsea beyond this week's euphoria, and one is addressed by Ivanovic: 'For us, what happened last week is one of the biggest and most successful weeks in our careers. But we still haven't done anything big yet.'
Indeed, lose the FA Cup final, finish fifth and lose in Munich, and they will not be recording this season in the Chelsea annals.
Equally, there is the future to address. Di Matteo will have to prove he can inspire players over an entire season and not just as a short-term antidote to an unpopular manager.
Then there is the question as to whether Chelsea have actually made progress this season. In August it was more or less agreed among the directors that the players, style and tactics should change to emulate Barca.
Now, Chelsea have reverted to a direct, counter-attacking team and, against Barcelona, an ultra-defensive one. Nothing wrong with that; it just is not Abramovich's vision for the club. Having been threatened with extinction, the squad have fought back. 'The question of rebuilding is coming from outside,' said Ivanovic.
'Maybe I can't tell you, because I'm inside and I'm with the guys every day but I think we can play another three or four years at the same level, because you are getting more experience. You are getting closer and closer, so it means stronger and stronger. Yes, it's good when you refresh the team with some new guys. But I think the basis of the squad is very good.'
Change, it seems, is coming, with German winger Marko Marin signing yesterday for 7million. So, will a new cultural revolution be required next season
'That's something for the people at the club to decide, not for me,' said Di Matteo. 'I'm confident the directors will make the right decision. I have faith in the club.'
Will they have faith in him Win in Munich and they surely will.