Former Chelsea star Roberto Di Matteo has worked wonders in the caretaker role he assumed when replacing Andre Villas-Boas in the Blues hotseat at the start of last month.
An assistant coach to the Portuguese, Di Matteo engineered an instant revival in the team’s fortunes. After coming back from a 3-1 first-leg deficit to beat Napoli in the UEFA Champions League, the Londoners then ousted Benfica to reach the semi-finals of the competition, where they are about to face Barcelona.
Just for good measure they brushed aside Tottenham last weekend to tee up an FA Cup final with Liverpool, and have closed the gap on fourth-placed Spurs in the league to a mere two points. Presided over by a relative novice in the trade, who is still better known for his achievements as a player than his successes in the dugout, it has been quite a turnaround, one that could yet lead to him being given the job on a permanent basis.
Born in the Swiss town of Schaffhausen to Italian parents, Di Matteo is no stranger to adversity, as he explained: “When I was a child they used to call me ‘the immigrant’ and I suffered because of that. The situation has changed a lot now, though, and Italian people are well integrated in Switzerland.”
It was there in the country of his birth that the ex-Italy international began his career, winning the Swiss title with Aarau in 1993. “I started out in the second division and took up one of the places allocated to foreign players,” he said, recalling his early days in the country of his birth, a place with which he has always felt strong ties.
“People often said to me, ‘You’ll have a bigger career if you become Swiss’. But when I was 17 I turned down an invitation to play for Switzerland at that age level. I’d already made my mind up, and if I’d had to, I would have gone to Italy to retain my Italian nationality, even if it had meant working in a factory.”
Di Matteo did eventually make that journey, arriving at Lazio and catching the eye as an industrious midfielder. Doing enough to impress national team boss Arrigo Sacchi, he made his debut with La Nazionale on 16 November 1994 against Croatia, going on to win 34 caps in all, appearing at UEFA EURO 1996 in England and the 1998 FIFA World Cup France™.
By that time Di Matteo had already made the switch to Chelsea, for whom he played 119 times and won a number of trophies. After sustaining a triple leg fracture, he retired at the age of 31 in 2002.
A new direction
Following a long convalescence in which he underwent numerous operations, Di Matteo returned to the game in 2008, taking over as coach with English third-tier team Milton Keynes Dons. A spell in charge of West Bromwich Albion, whom he led to promotion, followed prior to his appointment in June last year as assistant to Villas-Boas. A little over eight months later, he was the boss at the Bridge, albeit on an interim basis.
Choosing to alter tactics rather than personnel, Di Matteo switched from his predecessor’s 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1 formation, one he felt suited his players better and provided the team with more solidity. The change worked immediately, with the Blues regaining the defensive attributes that have made them such a ruthlessly effective outfit.
With Chelsea fighting on a number of fronts, the Italian has not been afraid to rotate his star players, daring to leave the likes of Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard on the bench for the first leg of the Champions League quarter-final tie against Benfica.
“I just want to make sure the team has as much energy as possible, that it’s always physically fresh,” he explained, delighted to have earned the confidence of key players, who made no secret of the problems they had with his predecessor. “Every player in the team has to be involved. Even the ones who’ve played less for me will get their chance.”
The right credentials
The caretaker has also deployed Fernando Torres in a wider role to prevent him “treading on Didier Drogba’s toes in the centre”, as he put it. As a result, El Niño has rediscovered his long-lost scoring touch and contributed a number of assists in Chelsea’s fine recent run.
“I’m happy with Fernando’s performances of late,” said Di Matteo. “He’s doing a lot of good work for us and there’s no question he’s a great player and a fantastic team-mate. He’s doing much better and he’s happy now, although I need to give all the players in the team the same attention.”
“What’s happening on the pitch has shown that he’s breathed new life into the team and that something special has happened,” commented the Italian’s former Blues team-mate Marcel Desailly, venturing an opinion on Di Matteo's chances of making the job a permanent one. “I think he deserves to be given an opportunity and that [Chelsea owner] Roman Abramovich should keep him on as manager.”
The calls for that to happen will become a clamour if Chelsea see off the Champions League holders in their semi-final meeting.
“Barcelona are the strongest team in the world, but we can do it. I think it's fair to say we need two perfect games from our point of view against this team. I think also the fact that the last six weeks we've been performing very well that gives us the belief that we can produce two perfect games against this team. They don't like to play against us. The results in the past have shown that because of the way we play it's a little bit more difficult for them to play against."
If Chelsea can indeed make life awkward for the European champions once again, Di Matteo might just find that it is sufficient to convince Abramovich that he is worthy of a longer-term stay.