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Di Matteo acing Chelsea audition

Roberto Di Matteo (AP Photo/Nick Potts, PA)
Chelsea's manager Roberto Di Matteo, center, celebrates their win through to the next round...
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James Horncastle

James Horncastle is a contributing writer for FOXSoccer.com who specializes in coverage of the European game. His work has been prominently featured in The Guardian, FourFourTwo, and The Blizzard.

   
 

LONDON, ENGLAND

As Roberto Di Matteo leads Chelsea on a path of self-awakening and rediscovery, his closely shaven head, owl-like eyebrows and general aloofness only add to the growing impression that he is Stamford Bridge's own Little Buddha. By restoring the natural order of things, the caretaker boss has brought a state of Zen to a club that isn't exactly known for its harmoniousness.

Di Matteo did not hide his delight after Chelsea’s victory over Napoli. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP Photo)

While there's nothing much enlightened about Chelsea's return to a more physical and direct style of play - rejecting the quick transition, high pressing game of his predecessor, Andre Villas-Boas - the change is yielding the kind of results that go a long way to easing a troubled mind.

No greater symbol of this could be seen than Fernando Torres finding the back of the net for the first time in five months as Chelsea knocked Leicester City out of the FA Cup. Torres had gone 24 hours and 34 minutes without scoring a goal, a drought that prompted some to ask whether he should call it a day. Modest opponents aside, this instead could well be a new dawn.

Give credit where it's due. Di Matteo has, in a short space of time, managed to turn the big ship Chelsea around and get a supposedly mutinous crew to row in the same direction. A four-game winning streak has brought with it the prospect of finishing fourth, and winning a trophy is still a possibility after their qualification for the quarterfinals of the Champions League and the semifinals of the FA Cup.

Yet Di Matteo continues to be viewed with some suspicion. Gianluca Vialli, for instance, didn't like how, despite being Villas Boas' No. 2 (and therefore, presumably, his ally), Di Matteo accepted the job even before his former boss's bench was cold. It was dishonorable. "I thought they were a partnership," Vialli sighed, later wishing his old teammate good luck in the job.

ROBERTO DI MATTEO

 

Di Matteo took MK Dons to the brink of promotion from League One in his first season in management, prior to taking over at West Brom and guiding the Baggies back to the Premier League. He was sacked as WBA struggled at the foot of the table, before Chelsea hired their former midfielder last summer to assist Andre Villas-Boas.

DATES CLUB G Win %
June 08 - July 09 MK Dons 52 51.9
July 09 - Feb 11 West Brom 83 48.2
March 12 - Chelsea 5 80
 
 

Then of course, there's the inevitable Avram Grant-Guus Hiddink debate. Which caretaker is Di Matteo? Is he the puppet or the puppet master? Who exactly is pulling the strings? Cynics have already said John Terry. A lot was made of how he answered all but one of the questions at the pre-match press conference he attended with his coach.

Theories that Terry was really the one in charge were apparently substantiated in extra-time against Napoli when the substituted Chelsea captain leapt off the bench to shout and gesticulate instructions to Michael Essien, directing the midfielder to drop back into defense for the cramped David Luiz. Hearing Terry behind him, Di Matteo, who had been standing in his technical area apparently unaware, turned around, showed his approval of the message then reiterated it himself.

It did little to discourage the skepticism about the arrangement at Chelsea. When Di Matteo ran onto the pitch at full-time, neither waiting for nor demanding an invitation to celebrate a win with the lads (something the tabloids claimed Villas-Boas once did), he was sneered at for acting like he was still a player. The implication, again, was that Terry was the manager.

Di Matteo shrugged off the incident. He needn't have had to do so, for he has quietly impressed with some of the changes he has implemented at Chelsea. By switching the team's system from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1, there are greater numbers in midfield. The defense seems better protected, giving full-backs Ashley Cole and Branislav Ivanovic the confidence to get forward and put crosses in the box.

His game management has caught the eye, too. When Stoke had Ricardo Fuller sent off at Stamford Bridge earlier this month, Di Matteo waited 10 minutes before making a change. He wanted to take stock of the situation. Once satisfied, he brought on Juan Mata for Raul Meireles. As a decision, it would have a significant bearing on the game. Mata went on to provide Didier Drogba with the assist for the winning goal.

There's a burgeoning sense that, by accident rather than design, Di Matteo might be the right man for Chelsea, even in the long term. That notion will be tested over the next week as he prepares to face Manchester City at the Etihad on Wednesday night, then Tottenham on Saturday before flying to Lisbon for the first leg of their quarterfinal with Benfica.

In some respects, though not all, Di Matteo calls to mind Juventus coach Antonio Conte. Both have pasts as players with their current clubs that command a level of respect from the players and goodwill from the fans. In Di Matteo's case, it comes from winning six trophies with Chelsea and scoring an unforgettable goal in the 1997 FA Cup final. As for Conte, he quite simply lifted every major honor there is to win in the game as captain of Juventus under Marcello Lippi.

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Both then cut their teeth and proved themselves as coaches with real success in the lower leagues. Di Matteo led MK Dons to the League One play-off semifinal then earned promotion to the Premier League with West Brom while Conte got Bari and Siena up to Serie A. Those experiences are transferable in relative terms, as they indicate that when given the resources to compete at the top of a division, they can handle the pressure and deliver on objectives.

Taken together, the synergy of knowing how to win and being aware of what it has taken to do that at a previous club can in some (though, not all) incidences produce results that aren't independently obtainable. In other words, it can be the perfect blend.

Big decisions await Chelsea this summer. Generation-defining players like Drogba are out of contract, and the next stage of the club's transition needs to be planned carefully. But perhaps the problem of appointing a new manager on a permanent basis will have already been solved. "If [Di Matteo's] not careful, he will get the job," quipped David Lacey in The Guardian. Why shouldn't he, if he continues at this rate?

James Horncastle is a European soccer writer with articles published in The Blizzard, Champions magazine and FourFourTwo.

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