COMMENT: The Italian has been appointed as the new coach of Schalke, and he has a point to prove after almost two years out of the game
By Enis Koylu
May 19, 2012. Chelsea had finally won the Champions League after almost a decade of near-misses.
It was an incredible achievement given the circumstances. In terms of individual quality, the Londoners had never been weaker in the Roman Abramovich era and their coach was not Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti or any of the other glamorous names who had sat on the bench during the previous nine years. It was Roberto Di Matteo, an interim boss.
Chelsea had started that season under Andre Villas-Boas, an ambitious young coach whose project had fallen to pieces by February. Di Matteo stepped into the void to steady the ship. His only previous managerial experience had been at Milton Keynes Dons and West Bromwich Albion, and his time with The Baggies had ended with the sack.
Just six months after his night of crowning glory in Munich, Di Matteo would be fired again as Chelsea stared down the barrel of a humiliating group stage exit in the first defence of their trophy. All this despite investing heavily in attacking talents such as Oscar and Eden Hazard.
Now, almost two years on, the former midfielder returns to coaching at Schalke with a point to prove.
Despite retaining his status as a hero among the Stamford Bridge faithful - who continued to chant his name after the unpopular Rafa Benitez succeeded him - the general consensus in the football community was that Di Matteo was somewhat lucky to win the Champions League.
"Nobody in the history of the Champions League has had that much luck," was the verdict of former Liverpool star Graeme Souness, who lifted the European Cup three times as a player.
After inspiring Chelsea to a memorable comeback against Napoli in his first Champions League game in charge, overturning a 3-1 deficit from the first leg in the last 16, Di Matteo then led his men to a comfortable 3-1 aggregate success over Benfica in the next round.
From the semi-final onwards, though, Chelsea certainly used up all of their nine lives. In the last four, Barcelona laid siege to the Chelsea box throughout the first leg in London but could not find the net - despite Alexis Sanchez and Pedro striking the woodwork. Didier Drogba struck at the other end with the hosts’ only shot on target to give them a narrow advantage.
It was a similar story at Camp Nou, Lionel Messi missing a decisive penalty and Barca squandering numerous chances. Against all odds, the 10-man visitors scored with two of only three shots on goal to somehow snatch a 2-2 draw.
The showpiece against Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena was one of the most one-sided Champions League finals in history, yet Chelsea emerged victorious. The Germans racked up an incredible 26 shots and 20 corners, but only broke the deadlock with seven minutes remaining through Thomas Muller. The 'visitors' forced extra time in the final minute, with Drogba scoring off Chelsea's only corner of the game. Bayern continued to dominate and Arjen Robben missed a penalty in the extra 30 minutes, but Chelsea clinched the trophy by winning 4-3 on penalties.
Of course, Chelsea's triumph can't be put down simply to luck and Di Matteo deserves great credit, too. The team he inherited was plagued by problems from the previous regime. Senior players such as Frank Lampard were alienated, while Villas-Boas' high-line tactics did not suit the ageing players he had at his disposal.
Di Matteo played the role of peacemaker, got the team playing to their strengths and the positive results followed. His shortcomings may have been exposed when he was given the role on a full-time basis, but he earned credit for his exploits the previous year, something for which his players were grateful.
“It was sad to see Di Matteo go early like that,” Cech commented. “He will always be a huge part of the history of this club with all that he achieved as a manager.”
It’s in this regard that Di Matteo can help Schalke. The club's start to the current season under Jens Keller is not too disimilar to Chelsea's under AVB in 2011-12.
Results have been inconsistent, star players such as Julian Draxler have under-performed due to questionable tactics and man-management, and the squad is in a big need of a lift. Schalke CEO Horst Heldt confirmed this on Tuesday in explaining the reasons for replacing Keller with Di Matteo.
Capable of drawing against Chelsea and Bayern and beating Borussia Dortmund this term, S04 have spilled points against the likes of Hoffenheim, Frankfurt, Maribor and Hannover and even lost to lowly Dynamo Dresden in the DFB Pokal. They sit 11th in the Bundesliga, nine points behind leaders Bayern, and have yet to win in the Champions League.
Di Matteo, who speaks fluent German having been born in Switzerland, knows all about the Champions League of course. And his appointment at the Veltins Arena is a big chance to show to everyone that his managerial career won't be solely remembered for one improbable European triumph in Munich.Follow Enis Koylu on