Saturday 24 February 2018

Cup joy puts Di Matteo in driving seat

CHELSEA 2 LIVERPOOL 1 Glenn Moore

Asked to namecheck his managerial influences after steering Chelsea to a seventh FA Cup triumph, Roberto di Matteo reeled off Arrigo Sacchi, Ruud Gullit and Dino Zoff.

But it was a coach he did not reference who has been the biggest influence during these last two spectacular months. Any successful manager needs the luck to be in the right place at the right time, and the ability to learn from mistakes.

Di Matteo was the man on hand at Stamford Bridge when Roman Abramovich decided to cut his losses and end the renewal project he had entrusted to Andre Villas-Boas. The Italian then rectified the mistakes his former boss had made.

Di Matteo showed humility, treated players with respect, backed their ability -- and reminded them of it. He also made some astute tactical adjustments that showcased his senior players' strengths instead of exposing their weaknesses.

It was not rocket science, but football remains, in its core aspects, a simple game, while management, in any walk of life, is about dealing with people.

"First of all, I started with communicating with the players," said Di Matteo, as he reflected on the turnaround he has overseen.

"They are good players -- there is no doubt about that -- but we are all human and when things don't go your way sometimes you have doubts. The only way for us to be able to win was to get everyone on board and involved, give them confidence and trust them to play. I spoke to every individual player.

"The Birmingham game (the FA Cup fifth-round replay) was crucial because it was my first game and if we didn't win it could have gone completely the other way. Every victory since has just cemented their confidence and we rolled on from one win to the next."

Di Matteo is putting together an impressive CV but, even if Chelsea lift the Champions League, there are no guarantees he will be made manager on a permanent basis.

This is because the job at Chelsea is seen as requiring a man who can rebuild from scratch, not just paper over the cracks. But does it require that?

Chelsea are regarded as Los Geriatricos but of their leading players only Didier Drogba (34) and Frank Lampard (33) are over 31 years old and both look to have plenty of match-winning performances left in them.

"If you live a professional life and you train well, you can prolong your career," said Di Matteo. "We have many examples in the last 10 years of players that have played up to 38, 40.

"Obviously, physiologically it changes a little bit because your recovery time will be a bit different, but careers are much longer now than 15 years ago."

The evidence is not just at Old Trafford, where Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs have a combined age of 75. Lampard is two years younger than Mark van Bommel and only a year older than Xavi and Andrea Pirlo; John Terry is three years younger than Carles Puyol; Drogba is the same age as Antonio di Natale, who so troubled Arsenal at the start of this season, and only a year older than Miroslav Klose.

Evolution

It is evolution, not revolution, which is required at Stamford Bridge. Their dressing-room has to be worked with, not taken on.

With a cadre of younger players in Ramires, Gary Cahill, Juan Mata, John Obi Mikel and David Luiz, there is no need to fight the older ones. They need merely to be assured they have a part to play and for those words to be followed through often enough in team selection.

Kenny Dalglish suggested that Chelsea's greater experience was the difference, but of his starting XI only Jordan Henderson and Jay Spearing were callow.

Liverpool's problem was just as much a lack of the belief that Di Matteo has restored to Chelsea. Abysmal league form has so sapped confidence that Dalglish opted to pack midfield for protection, leaving Luis Suarez isolated. It failed. Di Matteo's midfield dominated Dalglish's.

As they drowned their sorrows, Liverpool fans must have been tempted to raise a glass to an absent friend, to the injured Lucas. The intelligent Brazilian ball-winner was again badly missed.

Spearing, a determined young character, will doubtless respond but this was a chastening experience.

When he lost the ball in midfield after 11 minutes, Mata pounced and released Ramires. Exploiting a sluggish response from Jose Enrique, Ramires motored into the box and beat Pepe Reina at the near post.

Of the many issues confronting Dalglish, including getting Stewart Downing to deliver and making Henderson believe in himself, restoring Reina to his old imperious form -- and fitness -- is one of the most pressing.

One of Dalglish's few consistently reliable performers this season, Martin Skrtel, was then made to look leaden-footed by Drogba early in the second half.

Lampard, looking every inch a big-game player, was the catalyst, ushering Drogba through to score -- the fourth time he has found the target in an FA Cup final.

Chelsea were as rampant as the lion on their badge. Liverpool were crestfallen. But then Andy Carroll rose from the bench, unleashed like a flint from a catapult.

Carroll was almost unplayable, charging into Chelsea's defenders, lifting Liverpool's tempo and spirits. In creating room for his emphatic goal after 64 minutes, Carroll turned so brilliantly and suddenly that he left Terry with twisted blood and Petr Cech grasping at thin air.

This was what Liverpool supporters craved: Carroll and Suarez in harness, Gerrard scheming behind them, sending red waves rolling towards Chelsea's defence.

The final half-hour as Liverpool fought to save their season provided gripping entertainment. Operation Carroll so nearly worked.

The sight of Liverpool hammering against Chelsea's back-door inevitably stirred the thought of what would have happened if Dalglish had believed enough in Carroll to start.

The ponytailed centre-forward was then denied an equaliser by Cech, whose save to claw out Carroll's header via the bar ranks alongside the finest Cup final saves, including Sunderland's Jim Montgomery denying of Leeds United in 1973.

Carroll was convinced that the ball had crossed the line, turning away in celebration, rather than ending any doubt by turning the loose ball in as Branislav Ivanovic and Cech regained their bearings. The goal-line technology debate intensified, occupying phone-ins slightly pointlessly.

It is coming anyway, soon being tested in the Hampshire Senior Cup final.

Assistant referee Andrew Garratt -- a bank official in his day job -- and referee Phil Dowd made the right call anyway, determining that not all the ball had crossed the line -- an instant judgment confirmed by television replays.

Liverpool still raged against the fading of their season's light, Carroll still threatening, their fans still willing them on, but Terry embodied Chelsea's defiance with a magnificent late block to frustrate Carroll.

Carroll's cameo augurs well for his personal future after a difficult season but, if he plays, proper wingers are required, capable and prepared to cross the ball. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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