Thursday 18 January 2018

James Lawton: Torres at the heart of Di Matteo's downfall

James Lawton

James Lawton

In all the outrageous details of the fall of Roberto di Matteo, one is guaranteed to make the stomach turn more fiercely than any other. It is the one detail that is claimed to have been the most decisive of all in the decision to cast aside Di Matteo – and appoint Rafa Benitez – just a few hours after Tuesday's defeat by Juventus in Turin.

The belief is that it was Di Matteo himself who signed his own death warrant when he left out Roman Abramovich's £50m indulgence Fernando Torres.

He had, we are told, been warned repeatedly against the implications of such a move. It would be seen as an act of open defiance against the oligarch paymaster. But then Di Matteo knew well enough that his time was just about up.

Pep Guardiola had received a stream of blandishments from Chelsea to bring an early end to his year's sabbatical in New York – and there was Benitez, fretting so long in the wilderness after his brisk dismissal by Internazionale, promising to reactivate Torres, the owner's folly.

It was a pincer movement of circumstances that left Di Matteo horribly exposed – and then came the pitiless hit in the small hours of Wednesday morning.


Heaven knows, there had been enough evidence of a shocking shortfall of patience and understanding at Chelsea down the years – we had the scalps of such outstanding football men as Jose Mourinho, Phil Scolari and Carlo Ancelotti to prove it – but this was something different, something still more shocking.

It said that winning the Champions League, as Di Matteo so memorably did, was ultimately less important than working on some belated attempt to justify Abramovich's relentlessly ridiculed decision to impose Torres on Ancelotti at a time when the Italian, having won the Premier League in his first season, was returning significant life to an attempt to retain the title.

It said that only one view of football and the value of its players counted at Stamford Bridge.

Now the glum Torres, who looked as disconnected as ever from his old aura as a great striker when Di Matteo finally brought him on against Juve, has the dubious distinction of two managerial notches on his career record.

First it was Ancelotti, a man of easy charm and great distinction as both a coach and a player, and then Di Matteo, another winner of the European Cup.

Will Benitez do any better? Certainly he can legitimately claim to have known some of the best of Torres at Anfield. Unfortunately for him, and Liverpool, he was at the same time helping to create a disaffected dressing-room in which Xabi Alonso, who was recently described by Steven Gerrard as the best midfielder he has played beside, was particularly underwhelmed by both the manager's methods and style.

Certainly it is not easy to believe that Benitez's frequently over-bearing approach will heal many of the fresh wounds in the Chelsea dressing-room.

Di Matteo was never a player's man, he never set them on pedestals, but it was generally agreed that what he provided in the chaos that was so marked at the end of the regime of Andre Villas-Boas was a degree of professional nous, more than anything the understanding that a new sense of team was desperately required.

Now he can only reflect with great pride that for a little while he managed to withstand the unique pressures of managing Chelsea.

Some poor results have taken Chelsea's Champions League fate out of their own hands, but they are four points off the Premier League lead – hardly a disaster in a season which was supposed to mark a pronounced shifting of style.

Di Matteo's position was that such transformations take more than a few months to complete. He argued that the understanding developing between Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar, and the drive of Ramires, provided plenty of indications that Chelsea were indeed on the move.

Not quickly enough of course, not when winning the greatest prize is an old memory after just six months and when the patience of Manchester United in someone like Alex Ferguson might have happened on another planet and in another age.

Chelsea explained the sacking of Di Matteo in quite matter-of-fact of terms. The situation was drifting, the club, regrettably, had to act. Of course they did. They couldn't have the owner's £50m pet investment mouldering on the bench.

In all the circumstances, it is maybe not the greatest surprise that friends of Guardiola are beginning to doubt if there is enough money in the world to take their man to Stamford Bridge.

Irish Independent

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