James Lawton: Di Matteo rising to challenge, but not far enough


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The Independent Online

There were moments last night when Roberto Di Matteo's glass of fine vino was almost spilling over.

The man whose challenge is to prove that he can do something beyond any of his predecessors, including the great Jose Mourinho, by winning both ugly and with thrilling football was betrayed by a crime he had seemed to banish from the psyche of his team.

They betrayed that supreme belief in relentless application and it was a gift that Juventus, after staring in the face of the bleakest defeat, were strong and able enough to accept with a brusque efficiency.

A draw against such superbly balanced and sophisticated opponents was much less than disaster but it was also something that the Chelsea manager could not have imagined after his team took such impressive control in the early going.

It gave him a surge of authority on this first major occasion when Di Matteo, having defied all odds to deliver the oligarch's dream, had to move the fantasy on to another level.

If there was any comfort, it had to be in the belief that Juventus have once again raised their banner at the highest level of the game. Di Matteo's task was to get another gilded shoe to drop. First the win, the great prize of European football, now the beauty and if it seemed like an enormous request in the face of the brisk efficiency and impressive skill level of the champions of Italy, there was dramatic evidence of another reward for the manager's extraordinary achievements in Barcelona and Munich.

He got to pay £25m for the young, slight Brazilian Oscar and if you have to inject new levels of grace and skill into what Di Matteo's hugely rewarded predecessor Andres Villas Boas always described as the project this was revealed last night to less of a business investment than an instant blessing.

Oscar scored one goal that benefitted from a deflection that disabled the great Gianluigi Buffon but his second owed everything to the genius of his native land.

He was required to briefly turn away from the Juve goal but then he swivelled and re-focussed with the most sublime judgement and touch.

It was no less than Di Matteo's team deserved in their effort to say that if they conquered Europe in a series of surreally improbable moments last season this time there would indeed be a serious attempt to broaden and deepen the quality of their football.

Certainly it seemed like some early justification for owner Roman Abramovich's somewhat tortured decision to give Di Matteo a chance to build on his stunning triumph. The nature of it was once again enough as Chelsea, through threatened by often flowing authority of the Juve game, showed quite how far they had moved from the chaos that bedevilled them before Di Matteo's elevation.

It was, of course, too soon to measure the impact of Oscar - or the craft and inventions of Eden Hazard. What was plain enough, however, was that if Di Matteo has reached the limits of his powers it is not because he has lost the knack of drawing the best of his team's spirit.

It was, however, an asset, on which he knew that he would have to draw heavily if Chelsea were indeed to launch their defence of the title with a victory. Juve's presiding general, Andrea Pirlo, was not the man of such dazzling influence on the European Championship - there were more driving contributions from Claudio Marchisio and Mirko Vucinic - but the fabled Old Lady of Italian football was, after the wilderness days - in the sturdiest health.

This was underlined when Arturo Vidal cut through the euphoria of Oscar's brilliant eruption with the game's third goal in the 38th minute. Whatever else it foretold, it was an emphatic statement that if Chelsea were to survive the night with maximum points it would be the result of something more than another successful war of attrition.

Juve made this additionally obvious with a goal that cut Chelsea apart with just 10 minutes to go. Marchisio, unsurprisingly enough, was the creator as Chelsea attempted to spring an offside trap. Substitute Fabio Quagliarella ran on to Marchisio's pass to score as though it was the easiest task he had ever been set. By the stringent standards of Italian defence, it possibly was.

Chelsea, as is their nature, threw themselves at the task of retrieving the night but Oscar had gone, to tumultuous applause, and for Di Matteo there was only the task of acknowledging opponents of such quality that at times they seemed hell-bent on reviving some of the most formidable aspects of their nation's football tradition.

He may also have to remind the oligarch that winning the Champions League and then making beautiful football might take longer than one whole season. In this, we can only wish him the best of luck.