With the pressure reportedly mounting on Roberto Di Matteo in the buildup to this huge Champions League encounter, it is inevitable that all the talk will centre on the future of the Italian manager following the 3-0 defeat to Juventus.
Every Chelsea boss is ripe for the executioner’s blade whenever a string of results goes against him, and Di Matteo will be no different even if he has been dealt an unfortunate set of circumstances. If ever there was a match that was crying out for some leaders on the pitch, it was this one, and the void left by the injured Frank Lampard and John Terry – in alliance with the ghost of Didier Drogba – was cavernous at times in Turin. There was little to be seen in the way of vocal encouragement and on-field organization, and the undisputed value of the two totemic Englishman was increased still further in their absence.
Di Matteo will be cursing that such an important match came at such a bad time for a club out of form, short of confidence and stripped of its heart and soul. Yet he still had the bravery to select an inventive lineup while omitting the wayward Fernando Torres. Much will be made about his selections, especially with the Blues coming out on the wrong side of the score line, but it is hard to see what he could have differently to alter the outcome.
His decision to remove a focal point in attack in favour of a fluid forward trio was reaping dividends in the first half as Oscar, Juan Mata and Eden Hazard weaved their magic on the counterattack and created some valuable openings. Unfortunately, it was the failure to convert chances into goals that will see the manager’s wisdom questioned, but those questions are made redundant given the options available to him prior to kickoff.
Torres is a shadow of his former self, and the only recognized first-team striker, Daniel Sturridge, was ruled out after picking up a knock in training. With Torres’ movement having become so predictable and his eye for goal blinded somewhere over the past couple of years, fielding Hazard as the token "striker" made as much sense as anything else. The only potent goal-getter on Chelsea’s books at the moment is Scotland under-21 forward Islam Feruz, but he is only 17 and needs to be nurtured properly before he can be called upon.
Despite the presence of some undoubted misfortune, Di Matteo is far from blameless. One area that can and must be addressed, however, is the defence. With 21 goals having been conceded in the last 10 outings, you don’t need somebody steeped in footballing knowledge to tell you that shipping an average of two goals a game is going to cost you points. The partnership between Gary Cahill and David Luiz is at best a work in progress, at worst doomed to failure. With Terry injured for the next few weeks, it is surely time to put Branislav Ivanovic in the centre at the expense of one of them – my choice would be Luiz – and give Cesar Azpilicueta a run of games at right back.
But it would be unfair to pin all the responsibility on the back four for the avalanche of goals since the two midfielders deployed as a shield in front of them have proved to be as protective as a feather duster in a gun fight. The ease with which Andrea Pirlo created space for himself to drive at goal and break the deadlock was laughable and something that Di Matteo has to look at, with a change of system required, if necessary.
Another brickbat that could be leveled at the manager is the discrepancy in performance in the two halves of the game. While the first offered promise, the second was limp and the lack of self-belief was glaringly evident. Halftime reshuffling and motivation is a key element of the job and it appeared to be missing this evening.
Though there are criticisms to be made of Di Matteo, perspective does have to be maintained. Expectation is high largely due to the standards that he has set. His galvanisation of a troubled dressing room last season that led to silverware in Munich and Wembley has been followed with a bold new attacking approach this term. The team has lost its way a little in recent weeks, though even great managers suffer runs of poor results and to relieve him of his duties for a bad six weeks would be hugely premature. Remember, Manchester United finished bottom of their Champions League group in the 2005-06 season behind the likes of Benfica, Villarreal and Lille, but Sir Alex Ferguson kept his job and went on to lift the trophy two years later in addition to winning four Premier League titles in the years since then.
Obviously, Di Matteo cannot be classed in the same category as the decorated Scot – at least not yet – but the lesson remains. Sometimes patience is required in troubled times and faith placed in those in the firing line. If Roman Abramovich chooses not to exercise his itchy trigger finger and instead furnishes the manager with the world-class striker that the team craves, we could well see Di Matteo holding trophies aloft once again in the future.
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