The Blues' interim boss has turned the tide at Stamford Bridge, guiding the club to the brink of the Champions League final following the 1-0 win over Barcelona
By Matt Scott
Even the most optimistic of Chelsea fans would not have envisaged taking a lead into a Champions League semi-final second leg against Barcelona as Andre Villas-Boas left Cobham for the last time on March 4.
But just 46 days later, that is exactly where the Blues stand, all thanks to Roberto Di Matteo.
Chelsea shut down Barcelona to stunning effect on Wednesday night, and now have a toe in the Munich showpiece that will take place two months and two weeks after the Italian's promotion to the Stamford Bridge hot seat.
|VILLAS-BOAS LAST 13 GAMES IN CHARGE
|DI MATTEO'S FIRST 13 GAMES IN CHARGE
A possible place in the Champions League final, a confirmed spot in the FA Cup final and back in with a chance of snatching fourth in the Premier League, the turnaround has been exceptional.
Faith has returned to the playing squad too. Blues players who were not considered part of Villas-Boas' long-term thoughts were frozen out of the first-team picture, often regardless of good performances when they were given a game.
Without being burdened by 'the project', the former number two's team selections have been bold and intelligent.
Exclusion under Villas-Boas has become rotation under Di Matteo, with the likes of Salomon Kalou, Frank Lampard and John Obi Mikel coming back into the squad regularly to contribute to recent successes.
Kalou notched a vital away goal at Benfica, Lampard exhausted Scott Parker before hitting an incredible free kick in Chelsea's FA Cup semi-final win over Tottenham and Mikel managed to effectively shut down the 'tiki-taka' pass masters, Xavi and Iniesta, on Wednesday.
Canny squad management by Di Matteo has also reaped rewards. Under Villas-Boas, Fernando Torres had run himself into the ground trying to end his goal drought while Didier Drogba twiddled his thumbs, unable to nail down a starting spot.
With the two now regularly alternated, Torres has begun to rediscover the goalscoring touch while the Ivorian has been given the chance to play for his next contract, impressing while doing so.
Chelsea's naive and often reckless tactics became a trademark of the former Porto manager's time in charge, particularly in defence.
A high defensive line and David Luiz's free-reign to carry the ball out of defence often left huge gaps, exploited no better than by Manchester United at Old Trafford, who caught the Blues with three sucker punches to inflict a first, and telling, defeat on the Portuguese.
Now, a more thoughtful approach and Luiz's transformation to an 'if in doubt, put it out' defender has solidified the previously wobbly Blues, as has playing to the side's strengths in attack.
Previously, a physically domineering side with explosive power was bundled into a tight formation, with intricacy required from Juan Mata, while a slow-paced midfield failed to exploit quickly-closing spaces.
Now, with Mata moved out wide in the tried and tested 4-3-3, the Blues can hit the front man and work off the superb service that Drogba or Torres have provided.
The change has worked too. After winning just five of Villas-Boas' last 13 games in charge, Chelsea have won 10 of Di Matteo's lucky baker's dozen so far and where frustration once swept the Shed End, positivity and confidence now flows.
A beaming boss told ITV after the Barcelona win: "I think this group of players have shown again tonight their determination, their courage."This was the same group of players that Villas-Boas admitted did not have to back him if they didn't want to, a stark contrast.
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Indeed, after fixing one of the Portuguese coach's shambolic last acts away to Napoli with a breath-taking 4-1 home win in the reverse fixture, Di Matteo's crazed celebrations, jumping into John Terry's arms, were those of a man who is bringing the good times back to the Bridge.
The Italian's spell bears an eerie resemblance to the last caretaker's time in charge at the club.
Guus Hiddink replaced an expensive, Portuguese-speaking flop and went on to force the Blues into the top four and win the FA Cup and despite falling short against Barcelona in the Champions League semi-finals, is still revered by many in west London.
If Di Matteo can go one better than the Dutchman, there may be no need to call him the caretaker much longer.
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