[unable to retrieve full-text content]
Manager’s wild celebrations on Wednesday are in the past as club focuses on the FA Cup match against Leicester City
Roberto Di Matteo wondered, with a smile, whether his managerial story might have lasted beyond a single game. It was 2002 and, having seen his playing career ended by the compound fracture that still brings a lump to his throat, he had accepted the invitation of Claudio Ranieri to lead out Chelsea in the FA Cup final against Arsenal. It became known, in some quarters, as the “It’s only Ray Parlour” final. The midfield cult hero scored. Arsenal won 2-0.
“It was a nice gesture of the club and the manager to let me walk out the team for the final,” Di Matteo said. “I thought, because we lost â€“ and this is a joke â€“ that’s my managing career gone. But it was a great gesture and I appreciated it. It was the end of my career. When you watch the movies and you get the caption “The End” â€¦ that was it for me.”
Di Matteo can afford to joke at present, as he enjoys one of the high points of his professional life. At the start of the month, he was Chelsea’s assistant manager and the club that he represented with distinction as a player looked doomed in the Champions League. Today, after a dizzying spin of the Stamford Bridge wheel, he is the interim manager who is targeting glory on three fronts, not least in Europe’s elite competition.
The comeback victory he oversaw against Napoli on Wednesday will go down in club folklore. But the fervent hope is that the prize can yet eclipse it. Barcelona, the world’s best team, were on Friday revealed as potential semi-final opponents, which would not only quicken pulses in west London but recall the series of classics between the clubs during the Noughties. John Terry’s header won one of them for Chelsea in the last 16 in 2005, while AndrĂ©s Iniesta’s injury-time goal for Barcelona decided the stormy semi-final of 2009.
Di Matteo had no interest in discussing Barcelona. It is never wise to look too far ahead when you are the Chelsea manager but his reasons were rooted in respect. First of all, Benfica needed to be seen off in the quarter-finals and who, he added, could guarantee Barcelona’s safe passage against Milan? “Are you writing off the leaders of Serie A as easy as that?” he asked. “It’s game by game. That’s what I’ve learnt in my playing career and managing and coaching career.”
Benfica were one of the reasons why Manchester United did not emerge from Group C and they have a pair of character witnesses inside the Stamford Bridge dressing-room; Ramires and David Luiz both joined Chelsea from Benfica. The Lisbon club, who beat Zenit St Petersburg in the last 16, are second in the Portuguese league, one point behind Porto, and belief is with them. “We have our own threats and we do not fear anyone,” said Rui Costa, the club’s former player and current director.
Di Matteo admitted that it was a tonic to have the second leg at home, as Chelsea did against Napoli, and his team will start as the hot favourites but he will not allow expectations to get out of hand. “I’ve seen Benfica many times,” he said. “They were in Man United’s group and they are a tough opponent for us. I think the fact that we play the first game away from home is good, a little bit like the Napoli game. Remember the semi-final against Monaco [in 2004] when we were favourites but lost? In the last eight of the Champions League, any opponent is tough.”
Di Matteo appreciates, more than most, the importance of taking each game as it comes. And for him and Chelsea, they are piling up. They face Leicester City at home in the FA Cup quarter-final on Sunday and, if a replay were to be needed, it would be staged on Thursday week, two days after the first leg at Benfica.
On Wednesday of next week, they visit Manchester City; on the Saturday, they entertain Tottenham Hotspur. A top-four Premier League finish remains Di Matteo’s priority and it was little wonder that he was delighted to report a clean bill of health throughout his squad. He will rotate against Leicester.
The triumph over Napoli gave Di Matteo three victories from three matches and the mood in the dressing room has been transformed. The manager is also in a stronger position to ward off potential controversies. Against Napoli, Terry was seen in the dugout, barking out tactical instructions after his substitution. It would not have been difficult to imagine the furore if AndrĂ© Villas-Boas had remained in charge.
“I expect all my players to be responsible, to help each other and reinforce the messages I give before and during the game,” Di Matteo said. “That’s exactly what happened. It was not just him [Terry]. There were other players on the pitch that were helping others members of the team to win. Every manager would like to have some leaders. I have some in this dressing room.”
Di Matteo looked a little drained. Wednesday was certainly emotional and he admitted he had taken “stick” for the uncharacteristic zealousness of his celebrations. “I’ve not had much chance to switch off,” he added. “I’ll have enough time for that at the end of the season. I will need a holiday.”
For the moment, he simply needs to keep winning.