Roberto Di Matteo's lonesome blues illustrate trials of a Chelsea manager

 

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The Independent Football

If recent experience is anything to go by, the position of Chelsea manager can be an extremely lonely place to be. It was fitting then that, ahead of his first Premier League match in caretaker charge of the club, Roberto di Matteo offered the stark claim that he does not count anyone as a friend.

Anyone who takes on the task of satisfying a demanding hierarchy at Stamford Bridge while handling a powerful dressing room packed with bristling egos and influential senior figures – not all of whom share the same views – must have a hardened shell to protect them.

On that count alone, Di Matteo would appear to tick one of the boxes of the job description of the post although it will take more than a bold, and at times contradictory, statement of independence for the former West Bromwich Albion manager to make a success of the position he has been appointed to until the end of the season.

Andre Villas-Boas, Di Matteo's predecessor, lost his job last weekend because he was unable to successfully oversee a period of transition at the club, apparently winning the loyalty of some players, largely more recent arrivals, while fracturing his relationship with more senior figures, particularly Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole.

Di Matteo's appointment in temporary charge was followed by reports that he too does not enjoy unanimous support although the manager insists he has spoken to each member of the squad individually and had their backing. He also dismissed the claim by Wojciech Szczesny, the Arsenal keeper, that Chelsea's England contingent of Lampard, Cole and Terry effectively run the playing side of the club "I would say that he doesn't know our club," Di Matteo responded curtly. "He doesn't know what he's talking about."

The initial signs during the FA Cup fifth-round replay victory at Birmingham on Tuesday were promising although the reaction of Raul Meireles – the Portuguese didn't celebrate his goal and walked off alone – suggested some cracks have still to be plastered over. The next test will come against Stoke City at Stamford Bridge this afternoon when, having fallen to fifth in the table behind a resurgent Arsenal, victory is undeniably required.

As a former team-mate of Lampard and John Terry, the club captain, Di Matteo might be expected to have an advantage over Villas-Boas in establishing relations with the old guard but the former Italy international insisted his approach would not be tinged by sentiment.

Asked how he would handle the shift from being former team-mate and coach to being the manager of people he might regard as friends, he responded bluntly. "I think 'friends' is a big word," he said. "I'm not sure how many friends you have. I don't have any, actually. People come up to me and say: 'I met a friend of yours.' They're liars. I don't have any friends. That's my outlook. I've had a few experiences in my life. I'm 41 ... it's realistic. To take it to the extreme, I do have... It takes a lot to become my friend, yes. It's not been football, but life experiences have made me like that. That's my private life."

Refusing to expand, Di Matteo at least acknowledged that the experience of suffering a triple leg fracture in a Champions League game against St Gallen, an injury that forced him to retire from playing in February 2002 after an 18-month fight to recover fitness had been formative.

"That was a bad period for me, but a good learning period for me to understand how relationships work between people," he added. "It worked well because I understood a lot of things."

Again, Di Matteo left it there and his protection of his private life is something else that might draw a nod of approval from Roman Abramovich, the club's notoriously secretive owner.

Di Matteo's guardedness extended as far as refusing to acknowledge whether or not Villas-Boas had sent him a message of support after the pair's eight-month relationship had ended, although his response suggested the armour plating may not be as formidable as he suggested.

"That's my private life," he said. "What I do in my private life, I'd like it to remain in my private life. We will remain friends for the rest of our lives. I said that on Tuesday. That's how it's going to be. But what happens in my private life, that's just for me."

Di Matteo's may only be at the helm for a short while, but his every decision during a decisive period that will determine whether or not Chelsea qualify for next season's Champions League will be scrutinised, including his handling of Fernando Torres.

Torres rejected the chance to take a penalty against Birmingham, is without a goal since October, and is clearly desperately short of confidence. Di Matteo, though, is adamant he retains faith in the striker who was dropped by Spain last month.

"I will persevere as long as it takes," he said. "Persevere, persevere. He's a team player. If he doesn't score and someone else does, that's fine by me. If Petr Cech scores, and we win 1-0, I'm happy. It will come. When you work hard on a football pitch, it will come."

"I have total confidence in him. 100 per cent, 200 per cent, whatever you want to call it. As long as it takes. We have a squad and everybody is very important. I will try to utilise all the players we have and try to select for each game those who are appropriate for that game. You know how it is here. We have 20 internationals, so your bench will be internationals and some not even on the bench."

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