Early Doors

FA Cup glory adds to Di Matteo’s compelling case

Early Doors

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A few minutes after he had got his hands on the FA Cup, Didier Drogba draped one arm around Roberto Di Matteo and with the other pointed demonstratively and enthusiastically at Chelsea's caretaker manager, as if to say "this is the man".  Following the club's victory over Liverpool at Wembley, Roman Abramovich may increasingly be coming round to a similar way of thinking.

It was an illuminating vignette from Chelsea's vigorous and prolonged post-match celebrations as the blue half of Wembley reverberated with joy. Such an enthusiastic display of harmony between manager, players and fans could hardly have been envisaged during the darkest days of Andre Villas-Boas's doomed reign, and if Di Matteo has succeeded in anything since replacing his predecessor in March then it has been uniting a club that had grown increasingly fractured.

The question now is whether creating this collegial atmosphere will be enough to convince Abramovich that the caretaker should be installed in a long-term role. If Champions League success follows in Munich on May 19, the credentials of the man who first wooed Chelsea fans during his six-year stint as a player will surely be impossible to ignore.

But for now, and even with blue confetti still carpeting a cavernous Wembley, some doubt still remains. Does Di Matteo have the gravitas to attract the biggest players to the club? Does he have the strength of character required to make changes amongst his existing playing staff? Does he have the tactical nous and requisite temperament to pull off a genuine title challenge? None of these key questions have been answered by winning four FA Cup matches to secure the first trophy of Di Matteo's managerial career, as impressive an achievement as that has been.

Furthermore, though Chelsea controlled this FA Cup final for nearly an hour, their success in doing so was perhaps more attributable to a distinctly terrible performance from Liverpool, who had apparently been thrown by the later-than-usual kick-off and assumed the game actually began at 6.15pm, rather than any masterstroke by Di Matteo.

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Chelsea celebrate winning the FA Cup
Though Chelsea do look more coherent in Di Matteo's 4-2-3-1 than Villas-Boas's 4-3-3, such was the desperate nature of Liverpool's display that Chelsea did not have to be in anything approaching their best form to assume a decisive two-goal lead. Ramires exploited some poor defending from Jose Enrique and some beachball-esque goalkeeping from Pepe Reina to establish Chelsea's advantage, before Drogba embellished it when scoring in a record fourth FA Cup final.

Drogba now has eight goals in eight games at Wembley, the Ivorian's goal celebrations becoming as much of a fixture at the national stadium as overpriced programmes and terrible musical acts, the latest of which — Hard-Fi — stunk the place out, at least until Liverpool fans filled Wembley with even more offensive vocals: churlishly chanting through the traditional rendition of Abide With Me before their rather bizarre whistling of the national anthem.

Having trampled over tradition, their punishment was a first-half performance that trampled over the traditions of Liverpool as a club and team, with passes flying astray and Petr Cech left largely redundant in the first half.

As a magnanimous and mild-mannered Kenny Dalglish said: ''We were excellent for the last half hour, but the game lasts for 90 minutes. You can't give a team like Chelsea a two-goal head start. It's credit to our lads that they went close to an equaliser after Andy scored, but they had left themselves too much to do. I don't think the first hour was a reflection of the quality of the players we had out there but I don't know if that's was down to inexperience."

When Liverpool did finally materialise as an attacking force following the arrival of Andy Carroll as a substitute after 55 minutes, Chelsea allowed themselves all too easily to be elbowed off their stride. And as Carroll saw his header clawed onto the underside of the bar by Petr Cech's tremendous save — probably the best in the FA Cup since David Seaman, according to the Guardian, "defied time and gravity" against Sheffield United in 2003 - Chelsea may well have considered themselves fortunate not to be contemplating the prospect of extra-time against a resurgent red tide.

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Photo 1 - Chelsea's Italian Manager Roberto Di Matteo Celebrates Their 2-1 Win At The Final Whistle Of The FA Cup Final Football AFP/Getty Images
Still, in succeeding in winning the FA Cup — the fourth time in six years Chelsea have etched their name on the trophy - Di Matteo has firmly placed himself in the Guus Hiddink, rather than the Avram Grant, category of caretaker managers.

Less than two hours after Chelsea's victory, bookies were making him odds on to be managing the club at the start of next season.

Di Matteo himself remains reluctant to openly state his case in public, and why not? After all, his results are doing so eloquently on his behalf. ''It's irrelevant,'' he said of his hope of taking the job full-time. ''The boss (Abramovich) will make the decision and we'll respect it. The players will be fine. I am very fortunate person, so it's not an issue for me. I'll speak to him, don't worry. I speak to him in general.''

Their decisive tete-a-tete will come after the Champions League final against Bayern Munich, by which time Di Matteo may have mollified a dressing room known for its insurrectionary tendencies and managed an increasingly creaky group of veterans to a historic feat by becoming the first London club to win the European Cup. That would greatly surpass Saturday's defeat of Liverpool.

''We've had a difficult season and a lot of criticism,'' said Di Matteo, as he reflected on the first of what could be two cup triumphs in a campaign otherwise characterised by severe mediocrity in the league. ''But the players responded today to all the adversity we've faced. The answer was today on the pitch. The football is always the best way to deliver the answer.''

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Chelsea's Didier Drogba celebrates winning the FA Cup
Chelsea's ageing players continue to rage against the dying of the light - none more so than Drogba who, though not 65, as Di Matteo was at pains to point out in his post-match press conference, is now 34 and out of contract at the end of the season — and at present their manager is also on borrowed time as long as his future remains unclear.

But while Saturday's FA Cup triumph and a possible victory in Munich could be the final act in the Chelsea careers of Drogba and some of his colleagues, for Di Matteo it may yet prove to be a glorious beginning in the most unexpected of Stamford Bridge reigns.

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