x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Time to see if hard work has paid off for Di Matteo

Future is in the balance at Chelsea but interim coach only focused on Champions League final.

Chelsea interim manager Roberto Di Matteo discusses tactics.
Chelsea interim manager Roberto Di Matteo discusses tactics.

Munich // It can be seen again and again on the streets of Munich. A bus shelter-sized image of Didier Drogba inscribed "My Time Is Now". It is a message that could serve for most of his Chelsea team. If their time to finally touch the Champions League is not to come in the final hours of today chances are it will never come at all.

No wonder Petr Cech describes Chelsea's campaign as a "season full of paradoxes". On the surface it makes little sense. Lose in the stadium Uefa have rechristened Fussball Arena Munchen and Chelsea will disappear from a competition the club once planned to win twice by 2014.

By then Drogba, Cech, Frank Lampard, John Terry, Ashley Cole and Michael Essien may all be making their living elsewhere. Like Mikel John Obi, Paulo Ferreira, Salomon Kalou, Florent Malouda and Jose Bosingwa, each has made his way to first Wembley Stadium then Munich in the knowledge that their services were under review.

The manager who has worked two-and-a-half months of relentless 12-hour days to guide them to these dual finals has still less job certainty. Chelsea promoted Roberto Di Matteo to "interim first-team coach" when more famous names baulked at the short-term nature of the offer. He has delivered the club from seemingly certain exits to Napoli and Barcelona without even the promise of an interview to remain as coach.

"For me, the future is the present," said Di Matteo when asked where he expects to be working next season. Addressing the Chelsea paradox with pragmatism has delivered results that evaded his predecessor.

When Andre Villas-Boas arrived last summer as Stamford Bridge's great reformer he was rapidly presented with a quandary of his own. Roman Abramovich wanted his squad overhauled, their playing style reshaped into Barcelona-like beauty, yet he asked the new manager to retain players both considered unsuited to the remit for one last year.

It was a move motivated by concerns of Financial Fair Play, and one Villas-Boas was ill-suited to accommodate. The young Portuguese coach believes in principles and strategies. His abrasive man management quickly antagonised many of Chelsea's most important performers while his philosophy strangled itself in one naive outing after another.

Convinced players were the fundamental problem, Abramovich held off dismissing Villas-Boas in the hope he could nurse the team through to a summer in which Pep Guardiola would exit Barcelona. When form slumped so badly it threatened Chelsea's place in this and next season's Champions League that decision was made.

So unappealing was Chelsea's short-term proposition that Rafa Benitez and Fabio Capello declined to fire fight. Too independently minded to have been anything but an unnatural choice as Villas-Boas' number two, Di Matteo possessed the focus and ambition for the turnaround.

Aware of the players' frustrations, their desire to prove themselves, and the need to have the squad working as a whole again, Di Matteo concentrated initial energies on them. "The first thing I did at Chelsea was to speak to every individual player," he said. "To try to get them to unite and believe in getting the results we needed to get - and that we still need to get - to achieve what we put as targets."

He met each player one-on-one, listening at least as much as he spoke. "The key to communication is to be honest.

"To have integrity. To show authority as well. And respect. Before you have a professional relationship with a player you have a human relationship and that's the start of everything."

Men like Fernando Torres, Kalou and Mikel, who had been ostracised, were granted proper playing time, responding with their best football of the campaign.

Faced with the most intense fixture schedule of any Premier League team, Di Matteo rotated astutely, taking personnel decisions on a game-by-game basis, and demonstrating a deft hand with in-game switches. He altered Chelsea's default formation by adding a second holding midfielder, and improved the defence by withdrawing their high offside line nearer Cech's goal. Long hours spent analysing opponents delivered effective variations to the basic theme.

"You can see his importance in the results," said Lampard yesterday. "He has been very clever in how he's managed the situation. We were struggling for confidence, struggling on the pitch. Rather than making drastic changes the manager spoke to every one individually and created a confidence in the group.

"The first couple of results were hard work but we won. Then the Napoli game changed everything. From then on quietly he's done a perfect job. If anyone deserves to win this game tomorrow it's him for the job he's done." Having managed to salvage victory from the cynical stupidity of John Terry's red card in Barcelona, Di Matteo may even be stronger for the captain's suspension against Bayern.

According to Chelsea's only other Champions League final manager, Terry demanded to take the penalty that should have won the trophy in 2008.

"Terry was not on the list but because Drogba was out we changed it because Kalou needed to be the fifth," said Avram Grant this week. "And then, because it was the deciding penalty, JT wanted it."

Defeat in Moscow ensured Grant's final was his last match at Chelsea; victory in Munich may not offer Di Matteo another. Like his players, the Italian's time is now.