It has been 18 months since the Munich night when Roberto Di Matteo achieved what more-decorated coaches could not and enabled Chelsea to realise a long-held ambition of joining the ranks of the Champions League winners.
‘Caretaker’ Roberto Di Matteo locked out of top jobs
The Uefa Champions League finds itself strangely short of managerial champions this season. A competition normally abounding with past winners can only find four in the various dugouts across Europe.
Carlo Ancelotti, Rafa Benitez, Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho form a select group, one so small it raises the question of where the peers are.
Last year’s winner Jupp Heynckes has joined Sir Alex Ferguson, Arrigo Sacchi and, perhaps, Giovanni Trapattoni and Guus Hiddink in retirement.
Fabio Capello, Vicente del Bosque, Louis van Gaal and Ottmar Hitzfeld have opted for international management, or as some regard it, semi-retirement.
Marcello Lippi just won the Asian Champions League. Frank Rijkaard is out of work.
And there is the forgotten man of elite management. It has been 18 months since the Munich night when Roberto Di Matteo achieved what more-decorated coaches could not and enabled Chelsea to realise a long-held ambition of joining the ranks of the Champions League winners.
Tomorrow will mark the one-year anniversary of his dismissal. It was immortality and ingratitude in an epic, extraordinary 2012.
Since then, the sense is that Di Matteo, who only assumed caretaker charge of Chelsea in March 2012, has fallen as quickly as he rose.
Few managers with his track record have a lower profile. Even in an unparalleled turnover at Europe’s leading clubs this summer, there was no place for him on the conveyor belt transporting coaches around the continent’s most glamorous destinations.
Thus far this season, there were hints that Sunderland wanted him to replace the dismissed Paolo Di Canio; the message from the Di Matteo camp, apparently, was that his sights were set higher than a club with a solitary point after a disastrous summer of misguided recruitment.
There were hints, too, that he might be interested in replacing Fatih Terim at Galatasaray.
Instead Roberto Mancini got the job.
But, perhaps because Chelsea are reportedly paying him £130,000 (Dh769,500) a week until next summer, he appears in no rush to find employment.
Yet it is a strange situation where a proven winner near the peak of his powers, who has a background as a high-class player and the added advantage of being trilingual, languishes apparently unwanted.
Perhaps the football world has concluded that Chelsea’s Champions League win was a fluke.
In one respect, it was.
Theirs was hardly a formula for sustainable success, consisting of magnificent rearguard actions, minimal amounts of possession and prevailing at the Camp Nou with 10 men.
That it was all overseen by a manager overlooked by Birmingham City in the summer of 2011, rather than a Ferguson or a Guardiola, added to the impression it was a one-off.
Yet in another, it was a wonderful testament to Di Matteo.
Spirit was imbued quickly into the disheartened group he inherited from Andre Villas-Boas; a caretaker who had no chance to make his own signings made a pragmatic assessment of how best he could get results.
The entire team grasped his tactical instructions, and men who had been marginalised, such as John Obi Mikel and Salomon Kalou, returned to play better than they have before or since.
It was such an improbable triumph that it became one of the great Champions League stories.
But the three-and-a-half-week delay between Chelsea’s Munich glory and the confirmation of Di Matteo as manager on a longer-term contract — a mere two years — amounted to a vote of no-confidence in itself.
As Chelsea flooded their squad with youthful, attacking talents and aimed to capture the imagination with a bolder style of play, Di Matteo was left looking a short-term fix who became irrelevant as they looked to rebrand for the long-term.
It may have entrenched an idea that explains why Di Matteo was ignored last summer. He was not seen as manager with a grand strategy or a football philosopher who will implement an ethos.
And yet, perversely, that may benefit him now.
If Di Matteo is to return to the front line, it may be because he is able make the best of the hand dealt him by his predecessor, to cope with the pressure of leading a major club and to galvanise its premier players.
It may be the title no one wants, but football’s greatest caretaker could be the stand-in a stuttering giant needs.
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