Cast your mind back to early March, when Andre Villas-Boas had been fired and his assistant was thrust to the forefront of one of Europe’s biggest teams. Having struggled at West Bromwich Albion and MK Dons, this was Roberto Di Matteo’s chance to shine. This was his time, not only to show his real worth, but also his chance to arrest the slump of his club.
An interim appointment was all it was meant to be — had things gone to plan. Expectations weren’t high; Chelsea were meant to have gone out after losing 3-1 to Napoli in the first-leg of the Champions League Last-16 stage, and also needed a replay against Birmingham City in the FA Cup.
Di Matteo was seen as the hasty time-filler — the Board seemingly unable to work with Andre any longer — and the season has progressed too far for a world-class appointment. It appeared as if the Chelsea hierarchy were willing to wave away the last few months, perhaps void the 2011/2012 season totally, and start again in the summer. Indeed, Pep Guardiola, Fabio Capello and Guus Hiddink were some of the names reportedly sounded out to take over Chelsea, to continue the new, flowing side briefly started by Andre, and halted for a more robust set-up by Di Matteo.
But fortunes spectacularly reversed. The seemingly-cursed Chelsea tasted their first European success, and rookie Roberto proved his credentials at the very highest stage. The quick appointment of Di Matteo might have seemed rash from the outside, but had the Board actually made a calculated judgement?
Seven months from his appointment and that question is starting to be answered. Those jealous will argue Di Matteo is the luckiest man alive, blessed with the trinity of Mata, Hazard and Oscar, and that anyone can do well with a side boasting some of the world’s finest talent.
But fine individual players needs a fine manager who coheres the group effectively. Up step Di Matteo. The former Chelsea man may not boast the tactical brains of Sir Alex Ferguson or Pep Guardiola, but he certainly boasts the human understanding of Jose Mourinho.
It takes a gigantic effort to change players’ psyche, and that was shown to maximum effect last year. Players seemingly down after a dreary winter were woken up and blossomed under the care of Di Matteo in the spring months.
Indeed, ask Juan Mata. The diminutive Spaniard, who has shone for Chelsea consistently since his 2011 move, had a glowing report of his boss: “I think for us, he’s the perfect manager. He connects very well with the team, in every meeting, in every speech, he goes deep inside every one of us.”
And now the fully-grown Chelsea are showing their style. With the help of Di Matteo, the bus has departed, with the goals flowing. The long balls to Drogba has been substituted for smart, quick passes. Mata will get his credit, as to will Hazard for settling in so quickly, but above all must be Di Matteo, for setting his team in this way. All of a sudden, who can remember the problems seven months ago?