Saturday 18 November 2017

Hopes of an ailing power rest with an unlikely caretaker

Big-name bosses have come and gone under Abramovich, yet it's Di Matteo who may finally deliver the goods, writes Dominic Fifield

The roll call is glittering. There is the charismatic and invariably triumphant Jose Mourinho, a UEFA Cup and, more notably, Champions League winner with Porto, a feat he has repeated since with Inter. Luiz Felipe Scolari had claimed a World Cup with Brazil, and Guus Hiddink a European Cup at PSV Eindhoven, each bringing weighty experience gleaned both at club and international level. Carlo Ancelotti had twice steered Milan to the Champions League, while Andre Villas-Boas had swept all before him in Portugal and was the continent's coach of the moment. And yet Chelsea's duck in Europe's elite club competition remains.

That coveted group and their assorted entourages have cost Roman Abramovich around £60m to hire and fire. So there is an irony that, as the oligarch prepares to fly 300 of the club's staff to Munich for Saturday's big night out at the Allianz Arena, the closest he has come to hoisting the trophy he craves most of all has been with a team overseen by the much maligned Avram Grant in 2008 and, this week, another picked by Roberto Di Matteo, a man going by the moniker 'interim first-team coach', who does not know whether his employment will extend beyond June 30.

Only in the curious world of Chelsea could the caretaker's attempts to steady the ship actually end up threatening to yield the long elusive prize.

The sense persists that this club's hierarchy have rather stumbled upon an unlikely solution. History now dictates that, under Grant, those strong characters who had grown used to success with Mourinho merely maintained the team's momentum in spite of the manager who had been thrust upon them.

They were players at their pomp who came within John Terry's penalty kick of claiming the Champions League in Moscow four years ago. Di Matteo's achievement feels more impressive because it is so unexpected.

Against Bayern Munich, the Italian will send out a team that was apparently on the wane, relying upon personnel who were being phased out under the previous regime. It is to be expected that the club should be left leaning on the likes of Frank Lampard, Petr Cech and Didier Drogba to plunder this reward at last, but it is surprising that this is happening now and not earlier during Abramovich's ownership, when those players' powers felt at their most potent.

This could yet be a glorious last hurrah. Since Villas-Boas's dismissal in the first week in March, Chelsea have shelved all notions of the long-term -- from all those grand plans to instigate a more expansive style, to integrating younger players into the first-team set-up -- in an attempt to rescue the season.

Di Matteo's pragmatic and common-sense approach has suited a salvage mission, calming unrest in the dressing room and uniting a group that had been on the point of fracture. "The communication was not right," said Mikel John Obi, reflecting on Villas-Boas's seven-month tenure. "AVB is a fantastic guy and a great manager who has done well for himself -- he's only young -- with what he achieved at Porto. But when you are young coming into a business like this, you are going to make mistakes.

"At the start of the season, I was one of the key players in the team. There were a few rotations early on and it was difficult: you think you're playing well and the manager drops you, and you don't know the reason why. Things like this went through everyone's head, not just mine. Nobody knew what was happening and, when that's going on, you don't know what to do.

"You wonder if you should train well because you don't know if you're going to be playing at the weekend. Now we are more stable and have a manager who understands the game. He's played the game and speaks to everyone exactly the same, whether it's John Terry or a young player like Ryan Bertrand. His man-management has been fantastic and the way he goes about his business before a game, tactics and preparation, is absolutely spot on. No one is moaning or upset at being left out now because the manager explains everything. We hope he gets the job. This togetherness is what we were lacking before."

That feels scathing of Villas-Boas, but it is actually brutally honest. The players had discussed their predicament in the immediate wake of the Portuguese's sacking -- not with a trademark clear-the-air team meeting, but more in conversations among themselves -- and kickstarted their own revival.

In Di Matteo, they boasted a stand-in who retained faith in their qualities. "The senior players in the team had conversations and knew everyone could have done better," Mikel said. "The manager was sacked, but we all could have done better. We decided we had to kick on and make sure we achieved something. We needed to gain something from the season, and now we are under a week away from pulling off the greatest ever victory for this club. It has become a game we cannot afford to lose, and the biggest of our lives. We want to make history and be legends for this club."

Finishing sixth in the league has been inadequate, as Di Matteo has freely admitted, but FA Cup success has ensured this is to be no barren campaign. The Champions League yet promises to make it historic.

Not that it would guarantee him the position on a full-time basis. The 41-year-old has taken recently to talking as if he does not expect to be in charge beyond Munich. There has been nothing explicit to confirm as much, but the hints have been there. On Friday he spoke of having "a legacy at the club that no one can take away from me", and how that will fill him with pride "whenever I come back to Stamford Bridge".

The chief executive, Ron Gourlay, has been publicly appreciative but noncommittal on Di Matteo's prospects, with the manager claiming still to be relaxed and focused on his immediate task as his contract ticks down towards expiry. Nothing other than Munich, he says, is relevant, which feels noble given the longer-term uncertainty. The names Matt Busby, Bob Paisley, Alex Ferguson and Brian Clough were put to the Italian in the context that he may soon be joining their illustrious company, but the reality is there has never previously been a European Cup-winning interim first-team coach. He would be unique.

His outlook, however, remains typically selfless. Any references in the build-up to his impact over the last 10 weeks have been deflected with praise for the team he has inherited. The triumph, should there be one in Munich, will be Chelsea's to enjoy and not his alone.

"This is the biggest trophy you could ever win as a club footballer, and winning a European Cup would also add to the image of the club," Di Matteo said. "To be able to join an elite group of clubs, that would mean a lot to us." It has been what Abramovich has craved over nine costly years in English football. Now, for the second time, the prize is tantalisingly close. It may just be the caretaker who delivers it.


Sunday Indo Sport

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport