The Italian manager returns to the west Midlands for the first time since he was axed by the Baggies and brings his title-challenging, Champions League-winning Blues with him
By Ewan Roberts
Roberto Di Matteo has traversed a rocky and unpredictable road in his short time as a manager; from a debut loss as the new boss of MK Dons to Champions League victory with Chelsea via a bittersweet tenure at West Bromwich Albion, the side he is reacquainted with for the first time on Saturday.
Often lurking in the shadows of that euphoric night in Munich is an FA Cup win that completed an unexpected and quite implausible double for Chelsea and Di Matteo. The Italian, in charge of the club for barely two months, achieved a feat matched by few others.
Roman Abramovich's hunt for his holy grail had left a trail of managers in its wake, from Jose Mourinho to Guus Hiddink, Luiz Felipe Scolari to Andre Villas-Boas, Avram Grant to Carlo Ancelotti; and Di Matteo did what they could not despite having an embittered, demotivated and fractured side at his disposal.
But how did Chelsea's quiet, eyebrowed saviour go from managerial leper treading water upon the scrapheap West Brom had dumped him to masterminding the unlikeliest of back-to-back wins over Barcelona and Bayern Munich to lift the most sought-after prize in club football?
Di Matteo joined West Brom in 2009 after a successful year in Milton Keynes; the Italian had taken over from Paul Ince at the newly promoted League One side and led them to within two points of automatic promotion to the Championship before a penalty shoot-out loss ended their play-off dreams.
And so the former Chelsea midfielder moved to the west Midlands, replacing Celtic-bound manager Tony Mowbray, tasked with the job of immediately returning the recently relegated Baggies to the Premier League. Which he did; West Brom finished second, accumulating 91 points – a tally that would win the division most seasons.
He began life in the Premier League, ironically, with a trip to Stamford Bridge where his side lost 6-0 to then boss Ancelotti. But his players responded well, recovering from that early setback to win four of their next eight games, and remain unbeaten for six.
The Italian picked up the manager of the month award for September, and his side sat in sixth place in the league by the start of November. Di Matteo was hot property, but within three months he'd be out of work.
West Brom won just three games out of 16 between November and Di Matteo's dismissal at the beginning of February. Regularly beaten by relegation fodder and mid-table makeweights, the Baggies had nosedived to 17th position, just a single point above the relegation zone, when Roy Hodgson was brought in to rescue the club.
From award-winning up-and-comer, West Brom’s promising young manager became another victim of the difficult first season syndrome. As is so often the case, chairmen and boards become trigger happy when their Premier League windfall is at risk.
Just a couple of months before Di Matteo's dismissal, Newcastle had replaced the popular, Championship-winning Chris Hughton with the more experienced Alan Pardew (which had proved to be a successful appointment). There's a sense that some managers have a ceiling that does not extend beyond the Championship (Neil Warnock or Paul Jewell for example); the fear was that Di Matteo was another such example.
How much had his early success relied upon the squad (which was far too good for the Championship) he had inherited? West Brom lost just three largely insignificant players in the off-season, signed Youssuf Mulumbu from Paris Saint-Germain and retained the services of Jonas Olsson, Chris Brunt, Graham Dorrans and James Morrison (among others), all of whom remain key components in a team that currently resides in fifth spot in the Premier League.
Perhaps summer signing Peter Odemwingie's early form papered over the cracks too; the Nigerian scored or assisted six goals in his first eight games for the club, but only scored or assisted in three out of Di Matteo's subsequent 12 games before he was handed his P45.
Di Matteo spent almost five months in the wilderness, unsuccessful in his attempts to find a new job, before Abramovich activated the obscene release clause in Villas-Boas' Porto contract.
The Russian sugar daddy wanted his side to play like Barcelona and tasked AVB with the job of overhauling Chelsea's style of play. The Portuguese boss wanted a go-between in his blue revolution and so recruited Di Matteo as his assistant manager: a club legend, a link between the old guard and the new order.
But Villas-Boas' evolution was slow and fruitless, hampered by disillusioned players who rebelled against his leadership. The Portuguese boss' poor run of results and often dreadful performances resulted in his sacking, and Di Matteo was appointed caretaker manager. In an ironic twist of fate, AVB's last game in charge - the result that handed Di Matteo his chance – was a 1-0 loss against West Brom.
The rest, as they say, is history: Di Matteo has come full circle, returning to his old Hawthorns stomping ground as a Champions League winner, locked in a title battle; but Abramovich's unlikely deliverer is now tasked with making Chelsea an aesthetically-pleasing, attacking, Barca-style side. And until that point, despite his triumphs, there is a sense that the Italian is just keeping the seat warm for someone (Pep Guardiola) else.
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