Saturday 25 January 2020

Di Matteo making a name for himself as ultimate trouble-shooter

Di Matteo redeemed a campaign that had started so catastrophically with a Champions League triumph surely beyond the dreams of owner Roman Abramovich.
Di Matteo redeemed a campaign that had started so catastrophically with a Champions League triumph surely beyond the dreams of owner Roman Abramovich.

James Lawton

Whatever the outcome of the Clattenburg case, there is a new and quite oppressive obligation facing Chelsea's ultimate trouble-shooter Roberto di Matteo, the man who last season dredged up the club's greatest glory from the deepest crisis.

Di Matteo redeemed a campaign that had started so catastrophically with a Champions League triumph surely beyond the dreams of owner Roman Abramovich.

Now he is obliged to hold together one which started with superb momentum. For the most compelling reasons, you just cannot put it past the powers of a man who will surely always be remembered at Stamford Bridge as the manager who so doggedly made the impossible happen.

It is also true, however, that his current challenge is beginning to assume some of the dimensions of the one which overwhelmed his predecessor Andre Villas-Boas.

It is one hugely complicated by the potential distractions of the decision to push for the prosecution of the referee at the heart of Sunday's eruption in the match against Manchester United, one which was formally confirmed yesterday despite the dropping of one half of the charge that Mark Clattenburg used inappropriate language against John Obi Mikel and Juan Mata.

While the Mata accusation is dropped for a lack of hard evidence, Chelsea continue to insist that the referee racially abused Mikel.

This is a perilous journey, on which Chelsea's reputation will come under as many question marks as that of the embattled referee -- not to mention the wider one of all of football -- and, as last night's League Cup resumption of the battle with United wore on, there was still more evidence that Chelsea may well be developing a growing sense of persecution.

That, in all the circumstances, was maybe inevitable when referee Lee Mason refused Chelsea a penalty when the raised arm of United defender Michael Keane stopped a Mata shot at a most pivotal moment.

Had Mata got the decision, and won a second penalty after David Luiz had drawn Chelsea level from the spot in the first half, the creative impact of second-half substitutes Oscar and Eden Hazard might have sharply lifted the tension.

As it was, Di Matteo, who preserved both Mikel and Mata at the start in what seemed like an attempt to create a sense of business as usual, was obliged to continue to sweat on the fact that his team's excessively nonchalant defence had given Ryan Giggs and Javier Hernandez the chance to plunder easy goals.

When Gary Cahill equalised with a goal which, mercifully, did not plunge us back into another ferocious goal-line controversy, there was plenty of evidence that the Chelsea manager might have created a valuable amount of breathing space against the spectre of still another crisis.

Of course, United were dedicated to the task of building the pressure on the team they no doubt consider their strongest rivals.

It was a mission that was just seconds away from complete when, by way of the ultimate irony, Chelsea won a reprieve with the last-minute penalty beautifully converted by Hazard.

Still another irony is that in the course of football's latest journey to the dark side, Chelsea and United have produced some outstanding football.

Indeed, much of it has justified some of the claims of the Premier League that if there are technical weakness, and sometimes only the semblance of serious defence, there is also a a steady supply of the most spectacular action.

Last night hardly broke the pattern.

Chelsea seemed intent on hara-kiri for much of the evening but in the end they found the rhythm and the nerve of potential champions.

Once again, Di Matteo was a man in a corner. But then few of his rivals have displayed quite such a capacity to fight their way out.

He is surely becoming the prime contender as football's survivor in chief. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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