Football: Di Matteo loses a friend and gains a boss

Norman Fox discovers that the new role is already straining an old comradeship
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The Independent Online
WHEN Gianluca Vialli leads his Chelsea team out on to the Wembley pitch for today's Coca-Cola Cup final against a Middlesbrough side he suspects will be a lot more difficult to beat than they were in last year's FA Cup final, he will suddenly hear not so much the outpouring of passionate sound from the fans but a small inner voice asking "Is this really happening?"

Behind him will come at least one player who regrets the rapid metamorphosis of Vialli the player to Vialli the "boss". On the eve of the final and in the run-up to Thursday night's European Cup Winners' Cup semi-final against the Italian side Vicenza, Vialli's previously closest friend in the club, his compatriot Roberto Di Matteo, disagreed with most of the other Chelsea players who claimed they had seen no change since Vialli, who had always been the joking antidote to the casual, unpredictable Ruud Gullit, took over from the Dutchman.

"I know he has a lot of responsibility now but he doesn't laugh as much as he did," Di Matteo said last week. "When he was just a player he could switch off. We could go out together as friends. Now he has so many things to think about. I feel for him, but he took the decision. He always said he would never become a manager, but we all say that."

For Di Matteo, the scorer of the spectacular early goal in last season's FA Cup final, the appointment of Vialli was a personal blow. "I've just lost a friend," he said. "Our relationship has changed - we never go out now because he is the manager. I would like him to be the way he was before. It's sad for me because I miss him as a friend and I can't have him back as a friend as long as he is a manager. We knew that would happen - because now he has to worry about everyone."

Vialli himself said that although it had not been easy for him to retain the same relationship with the players, he thought "it must be possible to be angry sometimes with your friends". He insisted that the word "friendship" could be replaced with "rapport" without damaging the meaning.

All of the Chelsea players say that Vialli has instilled more discipline into the way they play as a team. When training under Gullit they knew that the emphasis would be on ball skills whereas Vialli has demanded a higher level of fitness.

Gianfranco Zola explained: "I'm now playing more in the way that I did in Italy. I've been asked to do more work when the ball is with the opponents. I accept that." Dennis Wise, the Chelsea captain, added: "You have to respect the decisions a man with his experience makes, but it's hard to say whether he has the ruthlessness necessary - he's not been in the job long enough yet. But not a lot has gone wrong, except dropping form in the League a bit."

The prospect of Paul Gascoigne appearing for Boro, if only as a substitute, was welcomed by Wise. "It would be great to see him. It was a long time ago when I last played against him, but I'm looking forward to it." Vialli added that Gascoigne was still respected as a player who could turn a match with one move, but he also agreed with Wise that Boro even without Gascoigne were a more organised, better team than last season. Wise added: "I'm sure they will get promoted, that's why Gazza went there."

Graeme Le Saux admitted: "When Boro name their team, Gascoigne will be the first one we'll be looking for. They'll be wanting to show everyone that they are capable of beating a Premiership team - that will be their motivation. It will be a tougher game than the Cup final - they have consistency now whereas then they were a team of individuals. They're a lot more positive and Paul Merson is lethal when coming at you, but we are doing more technical training now. We're definitely fitter.

"Not that there have been any dramatic changes except in formations. The timing of Luca's taking over was difficult but the players didn't want to use that as an excuse to under-achieve in the way the club had done in the past. We wanted to show we were professional enough to carry on and not let our season end because of the change in manager."

Even if victory in a Coca-Cola Cup final is not something that Vialli used to dream about, or even knew existed before he came to Britain, he is well aware that playing at Wembley is special, and not a bad rehearsal for Thursday night. Merely leading out a team at Wembley will be an experience that many a long-serving British manager steeped in the traditions of the old place has failed to achieve. Whether Vialli can resist selecting himself, he will not reveal until shortly before the game.