What we witnessed last night at Stamford Bridge was a masterclass in collective defending intricately plotted by a man who has revitalised Chelsea’s season after the failed experiment of AVB.
It is no exaggeration to state that prior to him taking the hotseat the club was in crisis; mired in self-doubt, fractured with in-house bickering, and bereft of vision. The reason Chelsea have been so successful in recent times is not solely down to possessing a squad of talent – Mourinho’s legacy that continued up to last summer was a rich vein of arrogance that ran through the side and yes, adhering to stereotype, a certain swagger. They had lost that.
From the moment Roberto Di Matteo slid across the dugout from his assistant manager role for a tricky FA Cup fixture at St Andrews it returned. As did the performances. As did the results. Seven wins and two draws in ten games to be precise, including a Wembley demolition of Spurs and a detailed smash-and-grab victory at Benfica. The latter, coupled with a tense return leg triumph, led directly to Wednesday evening. To Barca, Messi and Pep.
The blueprint for the nullification of the galaxies finest footballing side went far beyond maintaining two banks of four and cutting off any supply line from wide areas. Despite Barca’s sustained possession this was a much more savvy game-plan than total containment as illustrated by the lethal breakaway that brought Drogba’s goal and at the back there were nuanced tactical tweaks to the standard 90 minute shut-out including the excellent work of Terry and Cahill (who prior to the game was ridiculed in some quarters yet was immense once again) to take it in turns to step out – with Ivanovic always moving across – in order to shackle Messi deeper infield.
Di Matteo’s expert deployment of his midfield in particular had Guardiola rubbing his dome in exasperation and even provoked a rare display of desperation with the introduction of two out-and-out flair players. That was his only ace left in a bid to break down an insurmountable Chelsea rear guard.
At some point during the second half siege the Barcelona coach’s mind must have drifted back to their Champion’s League semi final with Inter in 2010. Then, protecting a two goal advantage from the first leg, Mourinho’s side was set up much the same – his wide-men almost man-marking the Barca full-backs and a solitary figure up front working like a Trojan as an auxiliary midfielder. Chapters in books have since been devoted to that Nou Camp resistance with all the praise lavished upon not the Inter players but the genius with the salt-and-pepper hair on the touchline.
Will the same compliment be afforded to Di Matteo now? Of course not.
For he is a puppet figure installed at the behest of the players in order for them to get their own house in order. That is the dreadfully unfair perception at least. Didn’t a substituted John Terry point from the dugout during the Italian’s first game in charge? There, that proves it.
After the doomed attempt by Villas-Boas to establish himself as the alpha male in a Chelsea set-up dominated by some huge egos wasn’t this Terry and Lamps and Dids and co putting things right? Player power gone mad. The lunatics taking over the asylum.
Again, of course not. If you believe that the tubthumping John Terry is capable of outmanoeuvring one of the most astute minds in the sport in Guardiola then perhaps you require a spell in the very institution I just alluded to.
Di Matteo succumbed to injury at the same age Terry is now and has spent several years studying every facet of the game. In his first season at West Brom he took them up playing exquisite, delightful football and over-saw their most successful start to a top flight campaign for a generation. I know who my money is on.
While the players deserve immeasurable praise for their outstanding commitment to the cause, concentration and discipline last night it was the unassuming ‘puppet’ on the touchline who engineered it all. Yet he will undoubtedly receive little of the plaudits.
The words of Cesc Fabresgas during the pre-match round of press interviews was perceived as damning and there was a great deal of truth in what he said – Di Matteo has indeed taken Chelsea back to basics. But wasn’t that the correct and clever thing to do?
And yes the players have been handed back their authority and influence but again, when you have players such as Terry, Lampard and Drogba desperate to turn the club around, isn’t that also the wise course to take? They were the beating heart and soul of the side and should be again for the short-term at least.
Di Matteo is a shrewd operator to have at the helm but whether he is viewed as a big enough name to take Chelsea onwards remains to be seen.
It would be nice however if his achievements at present were given the credit they deserve.