By Kevin McCarra
Roberto Di Matteo has fended off speculation that he made a compelling case to be appointed as Chelsea manager on a permanent basis with a pragmatic 1-0 victory over Barcelona in the first leg of the Champions League semi-final.
He distanced himself from talk that he will take over the post filled by André Villas-Boas until the Portuguese was sacked at the beginning of March. “It’s not about myself,” the interim first-team coach said. “It’s about the club and this group of players who will be here for many years to come.” However, Di Matteo has had an impact. Over the 13 matches of his tenure he has had 10 wins, two draws and one defeat, which can be easily pardoned since it came at Manchester City.
Di Matteo does have his critics and they include Arrigo Sacchi, under whom he played for Italy. “Roberto did well to motivate a group that seemed to have lost everything,” Sacchi said, “yet the game cannot be like this for a club that has invested [fortunes]. English fans who cheered at the end should not forget the criticisms of Italian sides when they won in this way. I believe that Di Matteo is doing the best but something is not [right] for the club and for many players.”
Di Matteo accepted that the mesmerising Barcelona style is closer to Sacchi’s ideal. The Stamford Bridge club are currently effective in their own way but the stand-in manager needs to maintain the good results. The side’s visit to Arsenal on Saturday is likely to be trying. Chelsea are sixth in the Premier League, even if Newcastle and Tottenham Hotspur are only two points in front of them.
The situation is challenging for Di Matteo but it gives him scope to demonstrate what he can achieve. He has to repair his own image, after being dismissed by West Bromwich Albion in February 2011. That sort of experience is not expected to feature on the CV of a Chelsea manager but, so far, Di Matteo has gone about his work with shrewdness.
He is getting the best out of his players but it is unsettling for Chelsea to fear that they may have to win the Champions League to feature in it as holders next season. In the circumstances the wary Di Matteo has become dogged in his efforts to be soothing. Didier Drogba, the scorer against Barcelona, is 34 and approaching the end of his contract, but Di Matteo does not feel that it would be unwise to count on a veteran for much longer.
Di Matteo referred to the enduring impact of veterans such as Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, with a nod to the longevity of Gianfranco Zola’s career at Chelsea. It is thought that a contract extension is being discussed by Drogba’s representatives and the Chelsea executive director Ron Gourlay. “He’s not going to retire,” Di Matteo said of the Ivorian. “Whether he plays here or elsewhere I don’t know.”
The caretaker manager expressed solidarity with Drogba, even if others were convinced that the forward had indulged in melodrama when encountering mundane challenges in that match with Barcelona. “He was marked most of time by two men and got a physical battering,” said Di Matteo.
Fernando Torres may start one of the next two matches as Drogba is carrying an injury. The latter’s age, though, is depicted by Di Matteo as a source of motivation. “When you are over 30 you know your career is not as long as it was in your 20s,” he said. “Every time in competition [veterans] have that sheer will to win. Why these people play at these big clubs is because they have that ambition.”