Roberto Di Matteo turns Chelsea spoilers into flair-filled title challengers
As Italian welcomes United to the Bridge it will provide first major test for his rebuilt side
The leaves have only just started falling from the trees so in terms of the Premier League season it is a bit early for the mind games. But with the occasion of his first meeting as Chelsea manager with Sir Alex Ferguson tomorrow it was natural that someone should ask Roberto Di Matteo if he believed in all that business.
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"I think it didn't work last season, did it?" he said, with a smile. Was he talking about Ferguson and Roberto Mancini, manager of the club who were crowned champions? "Yeah," said Di Matteo. "You make more out of it than it is."
The guard does not go down too often with Di Matteo, who in the last few weeks has had to tiptoe through the John Terry saga, but when it does he is always illuminating. Not many managers over the last 19 years have had a team capable of beating Manchester United and Ferguson over the course of the season, but eight games in, Chelsea have indicated they certainly have the raw materials.
If they beat United at Stamford Bridge tomorrow, a home fixture Chelsea have not lost since 2002, then Di Matteo's side will be top of the league by a margin of seven points. Of course, Chelsea teams have finished ahead of United four times in the nine seasons since Roman Abramovich bought the club and they have won the title in three of those four seasons, but this time it is different.
Brian Clough once told Don Revie that he had wanted "to win it better" when the latter questioned how his own achievements at Leeds United could ever be surpassed. Win it better. That is the mission for Di Matteo now that the club has won everything of note, including the Champions League, in the Abramovich era. Win it better than Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti.
It was why yesterday Di Matteo was justifiably asked if this was the most adventurous Chelsea team of the Abramovich era. The combination of Oscar, Juan Mata and Eden Hazard has been a serious departure from the more robust, powerful approach embedded by Mourinho and eked out by Ancelotti and this season Chelsea have scored 19 goals, only two fewer than United, including four against Spurs last weekend.
United find themselves in a similar position: free-scoring in attack, they have conceded five more in the league than Chelsea and fallen behind eight times already this season, including in Tuesday's 3-2 win over Braga in the Champions League. On the same night, Chelsea were unable to come back against Shakhtar Donetsk and that defeat is the first major blemish on their season since the European Super Cup final. They have dropped just two points in the league.
Last season Chelsea were the Champions League's great spoilers, frustrating the most illustrious clubs in Europe, albeit it in thrilling style. They are a different team now. "You need to have the players and you have to adapt as a manager to the players you have at your disposal," Di Matteo said. "There is no point playing something your players are not comfortable with or don't have characteristics for.
"Last season it was right to go that way with the players we had. This season we believe this [new] style is right and gives us the best chance to win games. Of course we wanted to change a little bit from the way we played last season. Or over the years. Certainly, that was the idea."
But it would not be Chelsea if there was not a caveat to the good news. And that caveat, leaving aside the saga of Terry, banned tomorrow, is the Spanish centre-forward who occasionally looks close to tears of frustration. Fernando Torres goes into tomorrow's game after a limp performance in Donetsk and with a worse goals-to-games ratio than any of Ferguson's strikers.
The Chelsea manager did concede that he would drop Torres if he had to – "I've shown in the past in terms of rotation of the team, I have done that with everybody" – but otherwise he maintained his steadfast public support for the striker. This in the light of Torres' recent admission in an interview with El Pais that there were times last season when he was so low he did not care whether Chelsea won or not.
The honesty was admirable, the sentiment troubling. Di Matteo conceded that Tuesday had not been Torres' best game but dismissed any longstanding fears. "I have no concerns about Fernando. He always works hard for the team and whether he scores or not, he always contributes in assists. He is very useful for combinations.
"We can't just rely on one player, we want to share the responsibility between ourselves. He has been training well. I thought sometimes he gets more chances, sometimes not. He has been scoring goals and making goals. You can't expect him to be scoring every game.
"I think we need to move forward. We are talking too much about the past. He had a difficult season [last season], he's made that point. Rather than mulling over the past it's time to look forward and think about the present and future."
Unfortunately, Torres is the problem that Chelsea hoped for so long would solve itself. Increasingly it looks like it will not and at some point the club's thoughts will turn to what this side could achieve with a confident goalscoring centre-forward like, say, Radamel Falcao. In the meantime they go into tomorrow's game hoping rather than knowing that it will be the vintage Torres of 2007 to 2009 who shows up.
Frank Lampard is out for two weeks with a calf strain but that is nothing like the blow to Chelsea it once was and Marko Marin is back in the squad for tomorrow. For Di Matteo, the notion of a team that is cavalier at the back and thrilling in attack is still something that he resists.
"I disagree with you," he said when asked about the new Chelsea approach. "We base our game on being solid first of all and then try to attack and create chances to score goals. It is not a 'you score one, we'll score two' approach. We have been more disciplined and solid."
What of the suggestion that this is the best team to watch of the Abramovich era? He seemed to like that idea.
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