By Liam Twomey
Roberto Di Matteo does not appear a man who spends much time agonising over how he is perceived by others – indeed, it is not a practice which traditionally yields much reward for a Chelsea manager – but, as he prepares his side to take on Ukrainian champions Shakhtar Donetsk on Tuesday evening, even he might allow himself to feel a warm wave of satisfaction at the fact that, slowly but surely, he appears to be winning people over.
On his chaotic ascension to the top job at Stamford Bridge back in March, the mild-mannered Italian was widely seen as merely a stop-gap, the most ‘interim’ of interim first-team coaches, put in place to temporarily restore the pre-existing status quo predecessor Andre Villas-Boas had torn up while Roman Abramovich pondered his next expensive move.
Even when he then led the Blues to their fourth FA Cup win in six seasons and, miraculously, a first Champions League triumph with victory on penalties over Bayern Munich in the German giants’ home stadium, the praise remained muted. The view that the club had become "Kings of Europe" by chance, and almost by mistake, proved hard to shake.
Few were convinced, and least of all Abramovich. Di Matteo was only granted permission to oversee the overhaul of an aging side and entrenched playing style after Pep Guardiola could not be persuaded to postpone his planned sabbatical from the game, and one suspects only a similarly sensational level of success this term could prevent a renewed pursuit of the Spaniard next summer.
|CHELSEA UNDER DI MATTEO
It is was a brief which differed wildly to the one he had been given only a few months earlier, and one which echoed the vision Villas-Boas had been denied the time, resources and support to realise.
Yet again, Di Matteo had to take up arms against a sea of doubts, this time questioning whether, with no margin for error, he was the man equipped to manage one of Europe’s biggest clubs through that most odious and dreaded of phases: Transition.
So far he has given them precious little ammunition. Chelsea sit top of the Premier League, four points clear of the chasing pack, having won seven of their first eight matches.
Even more impressively, they have done so in spite of damaging off-the-field distractions, and while presenting an extremely compelling case to be considered the new entertainers of English football.
The summer addition of two truly sublime creative talents in Eden Hazard and Oscar has enabled Di Matteo to ignite a midfield which already showed signs of improvement last season under the spell of the sparkling Juan Mata. Equipped with such thrilling and advanced weaponry, the Blues are now capable of carrying the fight to any team in the world, rather than simply covering up on the ropes, hoping to land a decisive counter blow.
But when Abramovich bestowed such lavish reinforcements on his manager, he did so with an air of expectation. The uncompromising Russian longs to own a team which wins hearts and minds as well as trophies, as Guardiola's Barcelona did. Nothing less will do.
So far, the Blues’ new-found sense of adventure has paid off spectacularly in a curious Premier League in which none of the top sides have yet found a healthy balance between defence and attack. Away victories against Arsenal and Tottenham were deserved and impressive, certainly, but far from assured.
In Europe, however, the vulnerabilities papered over by a string of domestic victories have been more ruthlessly exposed.
| CHAMPIONS LEAGUE LATEST
|8/1||Chelsea are 8/1 with Bet365 to beat Shakhtar Donetsk 1-0
Atletico Madrid, disciplined, motivated and inspired by the irrepressible Falcao, tore the Chelsea defence apart in the Uefa Super Cup final and, if it were not for a heavy deflection off Leonardo Bonucci and a moment of genius from Oscar, Juventus may well have dealt the European champions a damaging home defeat to begin their title defence.
Mircea Lucescu’s Shakhtar are more than capable of posing a similar level of threat. They boast a strong and settled side, organised in defence and dangerous in attack. An incredible start to their domestic campaign has seen them win every one of their 12 fixtures so far - adding to a winning streak that currently stands at 21 games.
Armenian forward Henrik Mkhitaryan has netted 14 goals in 12 league matches, as well as bagging a double in the opening-matchday victory over Nordsjaelland. Tricky Brazilian Willian may also feel he has a point to prove after a January move to Stamford Bridge fell through.
Another potent weapon in the Ukrainian giants’ arsenal is the Donbass Arena itself, which becomes an intimidating cauldron of noise on Champions League nights. Lucescu’s men have only lost two of 13 matches to continental opposition since the 50,000-seater stadium was opened in the summer of 2009, and have never tasted defeat to an English team on home turf.
Last season, by masterminding dogged defensive displays against formidable European opposition away from home, Di Matteo proved to be Chelsea’s perfect man for the moment. If he is to be the man for the future, however, more will be required this time around.
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