At two minutes past nine this morning, Chelsea FC announced that they had parted company with Roberto Di Matteo. The news was met – quite rightly – with shock and indignation all across the Twittersphere. The man who guided Chelsea to their first Champions League trophy, who rescued their season last year from the mess AVB left it in, one of the finest man-managers to grace the game, was as unceremoniously disposed by Chelsea in the same heartless manner all his predecessors had faced. That Chelsea had come into a patch of duff form is no justification whatsoever for him being canned, and I am currently typing this piece with fingers twitching from anger at the injustice of it all.
His opening game as Chelsea manager was on a cold March night away at St. Andrews, where Chelsea were somewhat fortuitous to triumph over Birmingham. Despite the victory, things were clearly not all well with the west London outfit – Torres refused to take a penalty, Meireles refused to celebrate his goal out of loyalty to his previous gaffer and critics refused to give Di Matteo any kind of credit for the win. They were equally lukewarm to the Italian after he guided Chelsea to a victory in the league against Stoke City, choosing to cite Fuller’s sending off, for a stamp on Bransilav Ivanovic’s testicles as the reason Chelsea got their win, rather than any tactical nous of Di Matteo’s.
But then it was the return leg of the Champions League knock-out game against Napoli that made critics and football fans alike sit up and realise that maybe Di Matteo was onto something. Nursing a 3-1 deficit from the first leg in Naples, a game which is widely perceived to be the one in which AVB essentially put the nail in his own coffin by benching Cole, Lampard and Essien, Di Matteo reinstated each of them. He was also blessed with John Terry coming back from injury to instil the backline with some much-needed leadership. Terry scored, as did the man believed to be Chelsea’s enfant terrible under AVB, Frank Lampard, as did Drogba, a nice tribute to the holy Trinity of the erstwhile Chelsea old guard, before Branislav Ivanovic netted the winner in extra time. Stamford Bridge was absolutely rocking and it was one of the finest European nights the club had seen. Whether Di Matteo’s tactics had anything to do with the victory or not, one thing was for sure, the players were playing with the kind of determination and swagger under him that had been all too absent under Villas-Boas.
Napoli at the Bridge took some beating, but, looking past the big-ticket results, there were some smaller, subtler things that he achieved that I will forever be indebted to Robbie Di Matteo for. The first was coaxing fabulous performances out of John Obi Mikel and Salomon Kalou, two players who had been frozen out under Villas-Boas (the Portuguese had a draconian practice of benching players for long spells after they committed one fail – a habit that is most damaging for confidence players like Mikel and Kalou). Kalou got the winner away at Benfica in the first leg of the Champions League quarter final, a game in which Di Matteo threw a curveball by fielding Paulo Ferreira, a man many Chelsea fans had altogether forgotten about, and Torres instead of Drogba. All his gambles paid off handsomely as Ferreira had an accomplished game at right-back in his motherland, and Torres got the assist for Kalou’s goal.
The thing about Roberto Di Matteo is, he got so little wrong. Chelsea’s biggest loss under him, a 4-1 away at Liverpool, can almost be excused – it was days after they had triumphed over the same opponents in the FA Cup final – and John Terry played so badly that day that many suspected he was still nursing a hangover from the celebrations. Di Matteo has been criticised for being too negative in the past, chiefly for the formations he put out over Barcelona and Bayern Munich, to which I say, pants.
When you are up against teams who are better and have better players than you do, you have to make do with what resources you have to try and beat them. Furthermore, the way he managed to keep Lampard and Drogba – two players who have a notorious reputation for getting a bit precious if they don’t play – sweet when they certainly didn’t start every game shows that Di Matteo has the fine juggling act of being Chelsea gaffer down to a T. And the notion that Chelsea did nothing but play long ball, sh*t football under Di Matteo is one that really needs correcting. Our 5-1 demolition of Tottenham in the FA Cup semi-final was one of the finest attacking performances by not just Chelsea but any team last season, and Di Matteo certainly outdid Dalglish in inspiring his men to overcome Liverpool in the final.
I have commended Di Matteo’s shrewd decision-making so often in my previous Sabotage Times articles that it wouldn’t be unfair to dub me a one-man RDM-tribute act. But it is worth reiterating; he is so, so much more than just a fluker. As someone who wore the Chelsea shirt, he knows what that means, to the players, but even more, how much it means to the fans. He stirred a depleted Chelsea team who were a man down at Camp Nou to put on one of the most Herculean team efforts to keep the joga bonito of Barcelona at bay. In the Champions League final, he handed a debut to Ryan Bertrand. Rather than let the big occasion get to him, the 22-year-old south Londoner played wonderfully, helping his tutor Ashley Cole snuff out the threat of Arjen Robben, and even looked good going forward. Roberto Di Matteo must have seen the young lad’s potential in training, and his faith in him was repaid handsomely, with the greatest prize in football. Di Matteo’s tendency to deviate from the status quo if he feels it’s beneficial for the team is something I loved about having him as a manager, and I feel nothing but resentment and sadness that I won’t get to see what other managerial moves he has.
Huge amounts of sympathy has to be given to Di Matteo. Managing Chelsea, for all its glitterati and glamour, is an unenviable task. Media scrutiny meets you from every single angle – after Chelsea’s 2-1 loss away at West Brom on Saturday, certain hacks lurked outside the Chelsea changing room in the hope of listening in on any impending Di Matteo breakdowns. Robbie was never a moaner, always held himself up with the greatest dignity in press conferences. This was certainly not easy with the ghost of John Terry’s charge hanging over him, with Ashley Cole shooting his mouth off on Twitter, to name but a few. Since Abramovich took over, Chelsea Football Club has provided onlookers much mirth and popcorn for nine years. It’s all fun and games. Until a talented, classy, genuinely-kind hearted, nice fella gets callously sacked.
Roman Abramovich has undoubtedly done a lot for the club and I don’t think anyone could delude themselves into thinking we would have won the Champions League without his roubles, but I am not a happy bunny with the Russian today. Roberto Di Matteo has been there in my love of Chelsea Football Club from the very start; the season I started supporting Chelsea was the one in which he scored (what was then) the fastest FA Cup final goal against Middlesbrough. Fifteen years later, he masterminded Chelsea to their greatest triumph in the history of the club, a day that will live on in many Chelsea fans’ memories as the best in their life. For those two things alone, he deserved more time. Then there was his astute man-management, his clever way with formations (on the whole), his genuine bond with players and fans, his eternal refinement with the press even when up against the most trying of questions. Thank you for everything, Robbie Di Matteo. The club’s treatment of you leaves a lot to be desired, but you will always for a legend to me. One of the biggest legends, in fact.