Roberto Di Matteo must have had a fair idea of the thankless task that he had in front of him when he became Chelsea manager first as an interim in March of this year and later in a permanent role in June. Having taken over the reigns from a failed Andre Villas Bolas era which in itself lasted just nine months, Di Matteo wasted little time in reuniting a fractured Chelsea dressing room.
Di Matteo didn't drastically over haul the Chelsea team or radically change it in a major way but instead went back to the style of play that had worked so well over the past few seasons. This included putting the old guard like Terry, Lampard and Drogba back in the first choice XI which paid great dividends. From day one there were always question marks over the leadership qualities of Di Matteo who didn't have the experience of controlling a dressing room full of egos like the Chelsea one. But the work that he did in such a short space of time was remarkable.
He began his tenure in charge with an FA Cup win over Birmingham and league win over Stoke. His third game was to be one of the biggest tests he would face. Coming up against a much fancied Napoli side in the Champions League, Chelsea had already been been beaten 3-1 away under the stewardship of Villas Bolas. In one of the most historic games in the club's long history, Di Matteo and his Chelsea side managed to over turn the deficit and win 4-1 at Stamford Bridge which sent them through to the quarter finals of the most illustrious club competition in the Europe. Not a bad start to the Di Matteo reign.
The Italian who had previously managed the MK Dons and West Brom was the eighth manager who had served as Chelsea boss under the Roman Abramovich era (nine if you include Ray Wilkins' one game in charge as caretaker manager). Eight managers in just twelve years. Astonishing. Di Matteo continued his impressive start as Chelsea manager and eventually guided his side to FA Cup success when they beat Liverpool 2-1 in May. Chelsea drew holders Barcelona in the Champions League semi final, a tie in which Di Matteo tactically out smarted his counterpart, the imperious Pep Guardiola. Having won 1-0 at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea secured a dramatic 2-2 at the Camp Nou in which they played the majority of the game with just ten men.
Chelsea famously went on to claim their first Champions League title in the club's history when they over came Bayern Munich in a penalty shootout in their own back yard. Di Matteo was heralded as the second messiah. After all the money and the glamour names that Abramovich had hired, it was the former Chelsea player that delivered the trophy that the Russian was so desperate to win. He was soon rewarded with a two year contract but many felt he would fail to see it through due his lack of experience and due to the fact that he wasn't Pep Guardiola.
And so it came to pass. Chelsea were drawn a tough Champions League group but one in which they would have fully expected to have qualified from. Last night's turmoil in Turin proved to be the final straw for a forlorn looking Di Matteo. The decision to drop £50 million striker Fernando Torres didn't quite off but not many could blame the manager for making such a call. Chelsea were outplayed, outclassed by the Serie A outfit and were beaten comprehensibly 3-0, a result which all but eliminates them from the competition. Chelsea look set to become the first ever Champions League holders to fail to make it through to the knockout stages which is something which clearly doesn't sit comfortably with their Russian owner.
On the face of it, Di Matteo looked to have done a decent enough job. Chelsea are just four points off the top of the Premiership and have been playing some attractive football this season. The fact that they lack a goal scoring striker isn't necessarily Di Matteo's fault as it seems that Abramovich was the one calling the shots in the transfer window. His record of having won just 24 out of 42 games tells a different story however. Back to back defeats against West Brom and Juventus proved a step too far. With a crucial league game against league champions, Manchester City coming up on Sunday, you again must question the timing of Abramovich's decision.
As it stands the favourite to succeed Di Matteo at the Bridge is former Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez - a man who hasn't always endeared himself to the Chelsea faithful. If it's an attacking, easy on the eye style of football that Abramovich is after, it's difficult to see why he would opt for Benitez. One reason which looks blatantly obvious would be the hope that the Spaniard can rejuvenate the falling career of Torres. If Benitez can get the striker back to the form that he showed under him at Liverpool, then Abramovich would look less foolish for splashing £50 million on a striker who has scored a dismal 19 goals in 86 appearences for Chelsea.
Pep Guardiola is clearly Chelsea's first choice to take over at the Bridge. But the Catalan great looks set to stick by his promise of remaining on a sabbatical under at least the summer. Di Matteo lasted just 262 days in charge but was ultimately the latest casualty in a long line of Roman's empire. He seemed the ideal replacement at the time but rebuilding Chelsea over the long term was another matter entirely. His face at the final whistle last night spoke volumes. He knew his time had come.
Di Matteo departs the Chelsea managerial soap opera with his Champions League and an FA Cup winners medal safely tucked away in his back pocket. He refused to embroil himself in the racism rows concerning his club and although remain slightly detached, never really damaged his own reputation. The decision to relieve him of his duties was apparently made at 4am last night following the teams arrival back in London. The official club statement this morning read; The team's recent performances and results have not been good enough and the owner and the board felt that a change was necessary now to keep the club moving in the right direction as we head into a vitally important part of the season."
Di Matteo walks away with his head held high. For a manager that had two major successes in under a year, he hasn't done too bad at all. It won't be long before he finds himself in another managerial position but for now the managerial merry-go-round at Chelsea trundles on.
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