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Di Matteo curing all Chelsea's ills
When Roberto Di Matteo was appointed temporary Chelsea manager, there were a fair few whispers amongst those supposedly in the know that suggested the Italian was not about to win any popularity contests in the Stamford Bridge dressing room. Exactly one month after Di Matteo was handed the reins, it's safe to say those doubters have been laughed out of town.
Di Matteo's stock could hardly be higher, considering how Chelsea have been so thoroughly rejuvenated and re-motivated since the man who had been assisting Andre Villas-Boas eased into the hot seat.
Having picked up the tatters of his predecessor's failing project and calmly pieced a functioning team back together, Di Matteo's Chelsea look unrecognizable. Although the faces are the same, the expressions are very different. The names on the team sheet may be familiar, but their efforts are transformed.
A month ago, Chelsea were on course for their worst season since Roman Abramovich arrived on the scene in 2003. Now they are eager to finish off Benfica (Live on Fox Soccer, 2:30pm ET) to set up a tantalizing Champions League semifinal, have an FA Cup semifinal against Tottenham on the agenda, and are confident they can climb back into the Premier League's top four. None of those goals looked achievable at the tail end of the Villas-Boas experiment.
It is as if Chelsea has been completely rebooted, with more or less all the glitches eliminated. David Luiz has eradicated much of his defensive recklessness. Fernando Torres has begun scoring again. Squad rotation does not seem to be a reason for a disjointed, discontented group of players.
Frank Lampard gave an interesting insight into how the interim head coach has lifted everybody. Villas-Boas clearly had his problems with some of the famously powerful personalities in the dressing room, but he also had a tendency to talk about football in a way that was overly technical. That has apparently changed. "It's simple, not over-complicated," said Lampard of Di Matteo’s style. "It was a case of getting confidence back in the team. Judging by the results, in majority, he's done that. I think he's reveling in making decisions."
It really ought to be food for thought for Abramovich. That is a view shared by Marcel Desailly, the World Cup winner who was a teammate of Di Matteo's at Chelsea. Desailly believes the club should look no further than the man who currently has a plan when it comes to filling the post full-time. "We are already hearing other coaches to come. Big names. Small names. Young. Old. But maybe the secret is to keep Di Matteo," suggested Desailly.
What are the chances? With Jose Mourinho, Laurent Blanc and Josep Guardiola amongst the bookmakers’ favorites to take over, they would appear to be somewhere between slim and wafer thin. Considering the history of Abramovich's managerial hires, it would be entirely out of character for him to appoint Di Matteo beyond this summer. The perception is that the club's owner would prefer someone with more of a track record, more personality, more status in the international game. Whether these are the most critical qualities is a moot point.
Above all, Abramovich and his advisors need to establish whether he feels this improvement is just down to new manager syndrome - where a different voice and fresh face inspires a quick fix - or has genuine substance.
It would be nice to think that these next few weeks, in which Chelsea aims to fashion an unexpectedly happy ending to the season, at least might make Abramovich think. Di Matteo is certainly in a position where he can press his case free of too much tension. Naturally, he is enjoying himself. "I'm so happy about the spirit that we are showing at the moment," he says. "We don't give up and we believe."
In some ways, what could be more perfect than to be in temporary charge? The pressure, and expectations are naturally less intense, and as caretakers are normally appointed from a position of calamity, there should not be too much to lose.
In the past five seasons, it was only Carlo Ancelotti's two years which saw the same manager start and end the campaign. Interestingly, on the other occasions, the interim coach oversaw a fascinating period. In 2008, under Avram Grant, Chelsea came as close as they have ever been to winning the Champions League. In 2009, Guus Hiddink salvaged a worrying spell and brought silverware in the shape of the FA Cup. And now, Di Matteo is on the brink of a season that offers three prizes.
Bizarrely, after a campaign that has been marked by such lows, Chelsea is in position to finish the season soaring.
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