When Roman Abramovich turned to Di Matteo to steady a Chelsea ship that had listed so badly under Andre Villas-Boas, it appeared slightly desperate and very short-term. Popular as a player, Di Matteo’s previous management stint ended so badly West Brom put a call out to Roy Hodgson to save them from relegation.
The laughter echoed across the whole of football. Abramovich might have wealth beyond measure but no idea about the game in which he has invested so much.
Well, no-one is laughing now. Whether by accident or design, Abramovich might just have found the ideal man to run his team. Di Matteo has been imposing his authority quietly but effectively.
He has restored a sense of unity to the camp and fallen back on the approach that brought success under Jose Mourinho. But Di Matteo, right, has his own ideas and plans. And last night, much as Mourinho did with Inter Milan in 2010, he delivered the perfect template for how to play against this brilliant Barcelona team. Defend deep and in numbers, counter-attack quickly and hope for a little bit of luck. All sorts of theories have been espoused about how to stop Barca. Surely it has become obvious now? You can’t. What you do instead is limit their threat and cross your fingers that when Messi goes on one of those magical runs a mistake, a tackle, the woodwork, misplaced shot, Petr Cech save, anything, stops it reaching fruition.
Then, when the maximum number of players are committed to attack, you hit them, fast and direct, exposing the frailties of a defence so secure in those ahead of them Javier Mascherano can play at centre-half without ruffling a hair.
Rumour has it that Abramovich wants Pep Guardiola as his manager because he can transpose the Catalans’ image on Stamford Bridge. He can’t. No more than appointing Mario Zagalo would have made them play like Brazil circa 1970. To do that needs Pele, Jairzinho and Carlos Alberto, just as to be Barcelona requires Messi, Xavi and Iniesta. Otherwise you have Swansea, pleasing on the eye but not quite the same. So, within the limits he was working to, Di Matteo got it spot on. The irony that Messi should be the man robbed by Lampard to set the move in motion for the winner could not be ignored. From then on, it was sublime. The pass sprayed out wide. The speed of Ramires’ run, catching Dani Alves a couple of yards too far upfield, the cross, rolled behind hastily retreating defenders, and Didier Drogba’s finish, first-time and to the corner.
The bad news for Chelsea is that only half-time has been reached. The good that the gap to next week’s return is filled by El Clasico, in which every sinew must be strained if La Liga is not to be surrendered to Real Madrid.
Chelsea have their own derby business to attend to, against Arsenal. However, suddenly there are no knowing smiles if it is suggested that winning the Champions League might be the best way for the Blues to reach next season’s competition. Nor that Di Matteo is the right man to lead them there.