Di Matteo is starting to look the part after two clean sheets but Mourinho waits in the wings
Sunday 11 March 2012
As the scorer of a first-minute goal in an FA Cup final, Roberto Di Matteo needs no reminding of the importance of a flying start. But, with due respect to the Middlesbrough team that Chelsea went on to beat 2-0 at the old Wembley in 1997, the task now before Di Matteo was always going to be in a different league of difficulty. How on earth is he supposed to look like the man for the Stamford Bridge job with Jose Mourinho on the horizon?
Temporary custodian though he may purport to be, a man of Di Matteo's background – after a fine playing career whose peak took him from Lazio to Chelsea, he managed MK Dons and West Bromwich Albion with promise before running out of credit at the higher level – is bound to find a part of him craving the succession to Andre Villas-Boas, whom he was hired last summer to assist.
He began well enough by supervising the routine victory at Birmingham that eased Chelsea into the FA Cup quarter-finals, and yesterday the even more serious stuff of the struggle for fourth place in the Premier League brought another victory, and another clean sheet to lend reassurance to the build-up to a fascinating Champions' League home leg against Napoli, who lead 3-1.
A largely downbeat season would be on the road to transformation if Chelsea could summon up a display comparable with Arsenal's at home to Milan and thereby knock out their visitors from Serie A – especially if the draw for the quarter-finals brought them Real Madrid (there are times when the urge to tempt fate is simply irresistible).
Not that such an occasion would be much about Di Matteo and his chances of the job.On Mourinho's most recent visit to the technical areas of the Bridge – with Inter in 2010 – there was an extraordinary atmosphere, with the home support respectful almost tothe point of fear.
Mourinho's Inter held no pleasant surprises for them either – and went on to become champions of Europe. Imagine the welcome the Special One would receive now that those who feared Chelsea could never replace him have been even more thoroughly vindicated.
Reports that he is having second thoughts about leaving Real and returning to England at the end of the season should not be taken too seriously. True, he may have alluded to the possibility, but sometimes Mourinho just enjoys tossing a pebble into the pool for the amusement of seeing the circles spread.
He truly has seemed unhappy this season, despite all the success of his team, in La Liga especially; under more obvious stress than at any time since he came to prominence with Porto nearly a decade ago and went on to prove himself superior to all other managers in Europe with the arguable exception of Pep Guardiola at Barcelona, whose domestic title Mourinho now appears certain to take.
If Mourinho had his way, he would walk away from the celebrations at the Bernabeu and become the next manager of Manchester United. But, if Sir Alex Ferguson is ready to hand over his latest collection of bright young things to Mourinho or anyone else, heis fooling us all.
So Mourinho needs a stepping stone to Old Trafford, and Chelsea, where he knows the environment and there is no such phrase as "the long term'', would seem tailor-made.
Speaking of matters sartorial, Di Matteo yesterday cut the coolest figure on a Chelsea sideline since Mourinho was sporting his Armani overcoat (now an exhibit in the club museum).
And even while the match was scoreless he had no need of histrionics. The temptation to note the presence of the stars Villas-Boas left out in Naples had to be resisted; this was a creditable performance in the ugly circumstances dictated by a 10-man Stoke.
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