With the final kick of last season, Didier Drogba slotted his decisive penalty past Manuel Neuer to win Chelsea the Champions League and send their fans into ecstasy. Their owner finally realized his dream for his beloved club and the man credited for Chelsea’s dramatic turn of fortunes at the tail-end of the season was the then ‘caretaker’ manager, Roberto Di Matteo. Basking in the glory of their European success, the Italian was the toast of the town and the recipient of more plaudits than he could take note of.
At the start of this season, he went about repaying Roman Abramovich’s faith when he offered him the managerial job on a permanent basis by leading the team to the top of the league table after the first eight games while playing some attractive football along the way. Unfortunately for the 40 year-old tactician, the modern game waits for no man and at this level, you’re only as good as your last performance.
This past week saw Chelsea secure a place in the quarter-finals of the Capital One Cup but their spot among the last eight in the competition came at a hefty price and even after surrendering the league’s top spot, they may not be done paying for it yet. Di Matteo’s men endured an intense match against Manchester United last weekend which the Red Devils won 3-2 to close the gap at the top of the table to one point. The hosts were on the receiving end of a couple of controversial decisions and allegations made against referee, Mark Clattenburg took centre-stage in the aftermath of the encounter.
Chelsea were distraught after the defeat to United
Perhaps a sense of injustice clouded Di Matteo’s judgement as he, along with the rest of the club, turned to their midweek clash with United in the league cup and targeted it as an opportunity for redemption. His team selection for the fixture made his intentions clear as he opted to field five players who started on the weekend while Sir Alex Ferguson chose to utilize just one from his previous line-up.
To complicate matters, Di Matteo was forced to summon Ramires, Eden Hazard and Oscar from the bench to equalize thrice before taking the game into extra-time. The Blues eventually won 5-4 but they had to stretch themselves to their limits in the process and call upon eight of the eleven players who featured in the previous game.
When the next round of league games came about, Chelsea’s lethargic display away to Swansea City cost them two vital points while United’s fresh squad comfortably dispatched Arsenal at home to replace Di Matteo’s troops at the summit.
United topped the table as Chelsea faltered
Despite losing out on top spot for the time-being at least, Chelsea remain only a point behind United and their title aspirations have hardly been damaged by what should be considered only a minor set-back in the grand scale of things. However, Di Matteo isn’t out of the woods yet because he must now pick his best side yet again for their crucial Champions League match against Shakhtar Donetsk tonight. Following that, his finest players won’t be afforded any respite as they gear up to face Liverpool on Sunday as part of an exceedingly taxing period in their fixture list.
Shakhtar defeated Chelsea 2-1 in their previous group game and had it not been for an exceptional display by Petr Cech, they may have been on the wrong end of a far more extravagant score-line than the one they escaped with. For that reason, the match at Stamford Bridge promises to be another demanding day in the office for the London outfit. Should Chelsea fail to win this game, the possibility of the defending champions being knocked out in the group stages would edge tantalizingly close to reality if Juventus are ruthless in their excursions.
Shakhtar are a serious threat to Chelsea's chances
Meanwhile, the threat of a visit from Liverpool lingers on the horizon. The Merseyside club has seen far better days but they have always boasted the ability to come good in big games. Their performances against the two Manchester clubs this season stand testament to that ability having drawn 2-2 against City and lost 2-1 to United in unfortunate circumstances. Di Matteo will no doubt be wary of Brendan Rodgers’ men led by the mercurial and in-form Luis Suarez. Anything other than a victory could see United pull further ahead of Chelsea.
Considering what’s at stake in these fixtures, Di Matteo’s team selection for the cup game against United must be questioned. The league cup certainly does not precede the Champions League or Premier League in order of priority. If his team fails to acquire the necessary results over their next few outings, Di Matteo’s naivety in utilizing his squad may well provide his trigger-happy owner with plenty of ammunition if he chooses to condemn the Chelsea boss to the same fate that befell his many predecessors.
Abramovich is rarely hesitant in making a change
This is not to say that the Italian’s head is already on the chopping block so early in the season but should he fail to progress to the knock-out stages in Europe and lose further ground in the league, the question will definitely be asked. History teaches us that Abramovich is consumed by his vision for the club and will dispose of any number of managers until he finds the right formula. It wasn't too long ago when Chelsea's owner replaced Carlo Ancelotti, a manager who won the domestic double at Chelsea. Given that Pep Guardiola, who Abramovich reportedly tried to persuade over the summer, is well and truly on the market, a swoop for the Spaniard doesn’t seem far beyond the Russian’s grasp. If things start to go south for Chelsea even at this stage of the season, Di Matteo will definitely be looking over his shoulder.
Was Di Matteo right to play a strong team in the league cup? Leave your comments below...
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