Chelsea will take the field at Stamford Bridge this evening for the first leg of a Champions League match against Barcelona which must surely rank amongst one of the more unlikely to be played all season. The sacking of Andre Villa Boas was supposed to draw a line below the competive side of Chelsea’s season, an acknowledgement of the failure on the part of the directors of the club in terms of their last managerial appointment. Roberto di Matteo, promoted from the shadows to shepherd what had given every impression of being a thoroughly dysfunctional team through to the end of the season before handing over the reins to the latest winner of the annual new Chelsea manager lottery.
Di Matteo, however, doesn’t seem to have been reading from the same script as everybody else in this respect. Chelsea’s season had been threatening to slide from view alogether, but di Matteo has grabbed this team by the scruff of the neck and dragged it into this year’s FA Cup final with a run that finished with a flourish last weekend when they handed out a thrashing to Tottenham Hotspur in the semi-final at Wembley. In the Champions League, meanwhile, ties against Napoli and Benfica both ended in wins leading to tonight’s match. It’s a tall order to expect any team in Europe to be able to get past Barcelona at this stage of the competition, but to have got this far is an achievement in itself.
What, then, has been gong so right for the new manager since he stepped up to the plate? Well, it could be argued that he has been a little lucky – relatively untaxing draws in the FA Cup, that goal that wasn’t against Spurs, Champions League opposition that was eminently beatable, and so on – but people make their own luck to a point and it has also felt as if something in his appointment has brought the players closer together. There have been times over the last few weeks when Chelsea’s old stagers have been put in positions that could certainly be regarded as a test of character, but they have come through each one with flying colours.
Even in the Premier League, where the team’s form had been patchy enough to suggest that they might even miss out of qualification for next year’s Champions League, the team has pulled itself up by its boot straps and dragged itself back into a serious bid to wrest the valuable fourth place finish in the league from a Tottenham Hotspur team that is undergoing one of its periodic (and in some ways inexplicable) implosions and a Newcastle United team that seems to be continually pinching itself at being in such a lofty league position and hasn’t had much experience of challenging for this sort of honour over the last decade or so. Making definite predictions is, in general, a fool’s errand, but Chelsea probably remain the favourites to snatch that final spot.
The FA Cup would be a pleasant trinket to take from a season that was threatening to go wrong for the club, but it has long been understood that the real prize for Roman Abramovich is the Champions League. Chelsea have tried and failed repeatedly to become the first London club to lift the trophy in recent years, yet for all their exertions they have still only one appearance in the final – in 2008, when they only came a penalty shoot-out from winning the trophy – to show for it. Since the relatively early exit of Arsenal, Manchester United and Manchester City from this year’s competition, though, Chelsea have had English attention with regard to this competition largely to themselves.
Barcelona, however, remain a formidable obstacle. The press long since stopped running out of superlatives for Pep Guardiola’s team, yet still they continue to flabbergast. Lionel Messi is on target to score seventy goals this season, and the question that di Matteo will have spent more time than any other pondering over the last couple of weeks or so is how any defence can take care of such a player. This evening, however, will see Chelsea go into their biggest match of the season in what is for them unfamiliar territory – with the odds stacked against them as the underdogs . How the team itself might react to this is open to debate, but with nothing to lose and a noisy crowd behind them anything may be possible and if Chelsea were to go into the return leg at the Nou Camp with a lead, then Barcelona’s character might end up being tested in way that it doesn’t seem to have been very often this season.
It was revealed by the Daily Mail this morning that Roberto di Matteo has already been interviewed for the Chelsea manager’s job after having taken the team to an FA Cup. There was little in his managerial career to indicate that this would ever become a possibility, but the manner in which he has acquitted himself over the last couple of months would seem to indicate that he would make a far more sensible choice as manager in the medium to long term than somebody untried and who doesn’t necessarily understand the culture of the Premier League or, more specifically, Chelsea Football Club.
There are no guarantees that he will be successful and the question of how itchy Roman Abramovich’s trigger-finger might get next season is not one that is easily answered. At this point in time, though, other candidates might be wary of their potential life expectancy at Stamford Bridge and di Matteo is a Chelsea legend who has demonstrated no reason why he shouldn’t at the very least seriously considered for the position. Stranger things have happened – even behind the scenes at Stamford Bridge since Roman Abramovich took control of the club and changed it forever.
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