By George Ankers
He tried the Tinkerman, the Special One, the director of football, the World Cup winner, the European Cup winner, the Champions League specialist, and the young upstart – but, in the end, it took the caretaker to win Europe’s biggest prize for Roman Abramovich.
All of the Chelsea owner’s investment in the club has been with a view to lifting the famous trophy – and it has cost him a great deal – but in Roberto Di Matteo he found almost by accident the man to do it.
Around £13 million had been spent on bringing Andre Villas-Boas to Stamford Bridge last summer and Saturday’s scenes were no doubt the ones that Abramovich had in mind when he appointed the Portuguese, but he wasn’t prepared to let things get worse before they got better and the costly manager had to become an even more expensive ex-manager.
Di Matteo, former MK Dons boss and sacked by West Brom before becoming Villas-Boas’ assistant, came in to steady the ship, to hold the fort until the summer when a ‘proper’ coach could be found, one who could propel the club into the owner’s dreamland.
|ABRAMOVICH'S CHELSEA MANAGERS
|The incumbent on Roman's arrival and removed after losing CL semi-final to Monaco|
|Blues' most successful boss won two Premier Leagues but left in 2007 after disagreements|
|Came within a John Terry penalty slip of winning the big prize in the 2008 final|
|LUIZ FELIPE SCOLARI
|Won World Cup with Brazil but lasted just seven months at Stamford Bridge|
|Filled in at end of 2008-09 season and won FA Cup but declined to stay on longer|
|Secured the double in 2009-10 but failure to follow up saw CL specialist dumped next year|
|Cost £13m to recruit but alienated key players and sacked in March|
|ROBERTO DI MATTEO
|The assistant stepped in and rallied the troops to unprecedented European glory|
It seems odd to imagine that Di Matteo might be jettisoned after what he has achieved, not only in winning the Champions League but the FA Cup, too.
The 41-year-old has taken an unhappy dressing room – one of which, as assistant manager, he was a very prominent part – and unified it with the belief to overcome the odds. Being the previous No.2, his status as the 'good cop' under Villas-Boas surely helped in this regard.
He has nurtured an improvement out of Fernando Torres while bringing the age-defying best out of Didier Drogba. He has maximised the ability of his squad and tackled its weaknesses, his use of the likes of Ramires, Salomon Kalou and Ryan Bertrand in recent times to cover holes as defensive wide midfielders a particular tactical success. He has rotated and motivated an ageing, transitional squad to unforeseeable triumph.
Some might have worried that the Abramovich glory days were slipping away with the apparent warming-down of the careers of John Terry, Frank Lampard et al. But Di Matteo’s work has ensured that Chelsea are legitimised on the world stage as continuing, genuine heavyweights, a status which the oligarch has always craved. The achievement is not to be understated.
Yet he may still go. Throughout the Blues’ stunning late-season run, the omnipresent question has been that of Di Matteo’s future, his chances of getting the job full-time.
Beating the mighty Barcelona over two legs in the semi-finals was an immense enough feat to have warranted hiring there and then. When the FA Cup was added a few days later, even more so. But Roman seems reluctant, Di Matteo downbeat.
Both before and after the match in Munich, the Italian appeared resigned with regards to his future. At the post-game press conference, the moment at which he was walking on water and could really have said whatever he liked, he said in reply to the question of whether he wanted the permanent job: “I want to go on holidays. Whatever the club decide, I respect.”
Already, despite the Munich miracle, you can see the cogs turning in Abramovich’s brain here. He has fired a double-winner before in Carlo Ancelotti, so going further is not all that much of a stretch.
The Russian has long desired not only success but also excitement. After all of the practical, measured Premier League dominance under Jose Mourinho, he wants Stamford Bridge to witness thrilling, attractive football on a regular basis, and, whilst Di Matteo has overseen thrills of a kind, his football style itself has not been so enterprising.
Chelsea’s caution and counterattacking play has been a necessity to go as far as they have. With limited and ageing players, weaknesses must be factored in, and against first Barcelona and then Bayern, the Blues have been, on paper, the weaker side. Backs to the wall has been the only option to weather those storms for the team who could only finish sixth in the Premier League and, though victorious in Munich, they were by no means exceptional.
This should not count against Di Matteo – you work with what you have – but the famously demanding Abramovich has his own brand of logic in these matters. Perhaps Saturday’s victory will be to him only a springboard to better attract a ‘proven’ coach who can take Chelsea to the next level of beautiful football and win the Champions League on the front foot rather than the back.
It has been proved impossible to predict Abramovich’s thinking in the past but perhaps, to that end, he could instead decide to give the Italian another year to see if things keep improving – and, if not, then move to lure Pep Guardiola out of his sabbatical. The idea could appeal to all parties.
Of course, given his record, waiting for Guardiola would leave just enough time to hire and fire at least one more manager before then. Who knows with this club? But Di Matteo has certainly done everything that he can and, whatever happens, has secured his place in the pantheon of Chelsea heroes as both player and coach.