The future of Roberto Di Matteo at Chelsea may still be unknown even after delivering the Champions League trophy so coveted by Roman Abramovich, but the interim manager’s real legacy at Stamford Bridge is far clearer. More than any tangible prize, the former midfielder has restored a sense of unity to the once-fractured club.
Indeed, the victory over Bayern Munich is a direct consequence of the togetherness generated since Di Matteo replaced Andre Villas-Boas in March. The Portuguese proved a divisive figure in West London as he attempted, with little success and arguably even less tact, to phase out the older players populating the squad, long-serving veterans such as Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba. One of the problems faced by whoever becomes Chelsea’s next permanent boss – even if it is to be Di Matteo – is how to do exactly what Villas-Boas was attempting, since it inevitably must happen at some point. But perhaps more important is judging when the process must start, which Villas-Boas evidently could not do.
Just a matter of months ago the same Chelsea squad lacked the spirit or the nous to go to Napoli and come away with anything better than a 3-1 defeat. Now, in mid-May, Chelsea have faced the cauldron of noise that was the partisan Allianz Arena in the pressure-cooker that is the Champions League final and have walked away with the trophy. Rather than impose early retirement on Chelsea’s aged legs Di Matteo embraced the experience on hand. Drogba became the player more central to any other than Chelsea’s success in both the FA Cup and the Champions League even before his match-winning spot-kick. It may yet prove to be Drogba’s last act as a Chelsea player but if the striker is to depart, it will be with his head held high, rather than bundled out the back door as Villas-Boas’ approach would have guaranteed.
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The result of keeping powerful, productive players such as Lampard on side was plain to see in Munich. There is no way to be certain Chelsea under Villas-Boas would not have turned around the first-leg deficit against Napoli and surged to victory in the final in much the same way, but seldom were the superlatives Lampard aimed at Di Matteo used to describe Villas-Boas.
Many clubs have their own identity, one which outsiders must conform to rather than attempt to alter. Barcelona are perhaps the most extreme example but the last few months have suggested Chelsea are in that category too, albeit in a much different fashion than the side they conquered in the Champions League semi-finals. Di Matteo not only understood that identity but strengthened it, an honour worth more than even lifting the European Cup for the first time.