The Italian led his team to a spirited victory over Barcelona at Camp Nou to reach the Champions League final and further boost his chances of becoming the Blues' full-time boss
By Jonathan Birchall
"We had a slow start but we finished the first half well and I thought in the second half we were brilliant," said Roberto Di Matteo, emotionally exhausted. "The players have been fantastic this season, they have given me everything and in the end it just comes down to destiny."
As eerily fitting as it may seem, this was not Di Matteo talking in Camp Nou, having just seen his side miraculously draw 2-2 with 10 men against Barcelona to make it through to the Champions League final. This was Di Matteo at his lowest managerial ebb, three years ago, having just lost the League One play-off final on penalties to Scunthorpe with MK Dons.
How quickly things change, yet the point about destiny remains, and with each passing week, the caretaker Chelsea manager is shaping his own in unbelievable fashion. After adopting a club in a state of stalled transition just over a month ago, the Italian should now, surely, be considered as more than just a caretaker at Stamford Bridge.
It was often said that Chelsea's players would run through walls to please former manager Jose Mourinho, the man whose Real Madrid side they may yet face in the Champions League final in Munich on May 19. At Camp Nou, under Di Matteo and arguably for the first time since the Special One left west London in 2007, the Blues looked willing to do the same for their manager.
Some played as if they would crawl through the rubble and put their bodies on the line all over again.
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They were made to by Barcelona. Over two legs against the European champions, Chelsea had four shots on goal, scored three and rode their luck, wearing a pained expression that suggested it was all too likely to slip away from them, but still they never stopped.
Ramires, who will miss the final through suspension, hassled and harried as if his life depended on it. Ashley Cole delivered a performance to remind everyone, from Catalunya to Cobham, that he remains a genuinely world-class full-back and Didier Drogba, although less frequently than at Stamford Bridge last week, left question marks hovering over a Barcelona team who have so often had the answer to everything asked of them under Pep Guardiola.
Yet amongst the heroics, it was fitting that the man who has often been labelled as Chelsea's de facto manager since Di Matteo replaced Andre Villas-Boas, John Terry, was conspicuous by his absence on one of the club's greatest ever nights.
Thanks to an act of reckless abandon, the club captain, so often seen directing his team-mates both on the pitch and from the sidelines, was nowhere to be seen as his side achieved what appeared impossible when they went 2-0 behind thanks to Andres Iniesta's textbook finish in the 43rd minute.
To all intents and purposes, Terry's knee into the back of Alexis Sanchez and subsequent sending off six minutes prior to that goal looked likely to be the end of another Chelsea manager's reign, but under Di Matteo, his team-mates believed, committed and delivered for their new leader. Emphatically so.
Where this leaves the interim manager in the eyes of owner Roman Abramovich is difficult to second guess. To the Russian, the former West Brom boss may appear to be a figure in the shape of Avram Grant, taking a team to the Champions League final that logic suggests they should be nowhere near. But whereas the Israeli adopted Mourinho's ageing champions and allegedly left them to run themselves, Di Matteo appears to be instilling his own philosophy.
The legendary Dutch midfielder Barry Hulshoff, who won the European Cup in three consecutive seasons in 1971, 1972 and 1973 with Ajax, once said: "A team on its own can't do it. A team can't make the rules."
There have been times this season, notably under Villas-Boas, where that is supposedly what Chelsea's cabal of experienced players have attempted to achieve. Not so under Di Matteo, who has shown a willingness to continue the rebuilding process required at Stamford Bridge by his Portuguese predecessor, while keeping those with considerable influence amongst the playing staff content.
Abramovich, on the other hand, may remain unsatisfied until his club are European champions, and defeat in Munich may well spell the end for Di Matteo regardless. Though it should, you suspect that not even victory in Bavaria would provide a guaranteed job offer, such is the billionaire's ability to surprise.
But after seeing Lionel Messi hit the crossbar and the post at Camp Nou, his captain dismissed and Gary Cahill hobble off with a hamstring injury, Di Matteo would be forgiven for thinking that his time and legacy at Chelsea could extend beyond this season.
It may be his destiny after all.