Lewis Rutledge looks at Chelsea's revival under Roberto Di Matteo and considers whether he could make a case for the permanent manager's job that is impossible to overlook
Last Updated: March 19, 2012 12:23pm
Roberto Di Matteo: Chelsea have appeared rejuvenated since the Italian came in
When Andre Villas-Boas became the latest manager to be shown the Stamford Bridge exit door just a couple of weeks, Chelsea declared that it was their 'only option' to make a change to maintain their challenge on three fronts this season.
Anxious to keep their UEFA Champions League and FA Cup dreams alive and absolutely desperate to finish in the top four of the Premier League, perhaps they had a big name lined up to come in straight away and clear up the mess they felt they were in.
That was not the case, though. Instead, Roberto Di Matteo was promoted from first-team coach to interim manager until the end of the campaign, with the club effectively biding their time until a more high-profile figure becomes available in the summer and hoping for a remarkable upturn in the meantime.
A new boss can often have a galvanising effect on the fortunes of a team and that has certainly been true of the Blues over the past fortnight, but is Di Matteo capable of building something more long-lasting?
The Italian says he has not thought for a second about asking for the position on a permanent basis and he is staying focused for the moment on one game at a time, an approach which has so far yielded four wins out of four.
Di Matteo's reign started with a hard-fought 2-0 victory over Birmingham in an FA Cup fifth-round replay, before a 1-0 win at home to Stoke that boosted their bid for fourth place in the Premier League.
With two potentially tricky fixtures negotiated it was time for the first big test of Di Matteo's credentials, as Chelsea took to the field against Napoli in the Champions League aiming to overturn a 3-1 deficit and make it through to another European quarter-final.
Napoli carved out enough chances to finish off the tie in the first half but the Blues rallied valiantly to force extra-time and emerged triumphant thanks to Branislav Ivanovic's decisive strike.
Chelsea's first three goals on the night had been scored by Didier Drogba, John Terry and Frank Lampard, three of the old heads in the dressing room that have been discussed at such length this season.
One of the most notable aspects of Di Matteo's first few games at the helm has been the way he has put his faith in the experienced professionals, with Michael Essien and Ashley Cole also starting the second leg against Napoli after being named among the substitutes in Italy.
Considering the pressure that a perceived rift with some of his senior men piled on Villas-Boas, it is neither surprising nor particularly brave of Di Matteo to turn to these players as he strives to curry favour with the squad.
It has undoubtedly proved to be the wisest course of action, though, with Di Matteo insisting that he has everyone on side and that belief is returning to Chelsea.
Di Matteo has also embraced the so-called 'player power' that reportedly disrupted Villas-Boas, saying he has no issue with being given a helping hand by those on the pitch or the bench.
The impression is that while Villas-Boas tried to take a tough stance with the old guard, perhaps unnecessarily, and struggled to assert his authority, Di Matteo prefers the carrot to the stick and has a close relationship with the core of the team, as shown by his inclusive celebration after the final whistle against Napoli.
It was hard not to have sympathy with Villas-Boas when he was dismissed just eight months into a three-year contract, but the consensus seems to be that he always had his work cut out for him trying to be an instant success at Stamford Bridge.
While 'AVB' could be remembered by many of the players as one of Jose Mourinho's underlings, Di Matteo is somebody they can identify with more easily for his achievements on the field at Stamford Bridge between 1996 and 2002.
Confidence appears to be flowing through the side now as they prepare for a crucial couple of months, with a number of players returning to form after a difficult time under Villas-Boas.
Fernando Torres' problems have been well documented ever since he made the move from Liverpool in January of last year, but he pointed to the influence of Di Matteo after scoring twice in Sunday's 5-2 FA Cup quarter-final victory over Leicester to end a goal drought stretching back longer than 24 hours of playing time.
Torres declared that he 'feels the confidence of the manager now' after the clash with Leicester and if he can now finally start to regain his old form he will be a like a new signing for Chelsea.
It is very early days for Torres and Di Matteo, though, and it remains to be seen if the momentum will carry through until the end of the season.
Ivanovic says the players can see parallels between what Di Matteo is starting to achieve and the revival that happened in 2009 when Guus Hiddink came in to replace Luiz Felipe Scolari on a short-term deal.
Back then the Blues were in danger of missing out on Champions League qualification but enjoyed a strong finish to come third in the league, while they also clinched FA Cup glory.
There was a clamour for Hiddink to stay on but he returned to his full-time role with Russia and the managerial merry-go-round continued at Stamford Bridge.
Appeals for Di Matteo to be handed the job permanently remain in the background at the moment and he may not be the right man to take the club forward into next season, with Roman Abramovich likely to turn to somebody with more of a proven track record and a no-nonsense approach to management.
However, if Chelsea can cause an upset against Manchester City in midweek the calls for Di Matteo to continue will grow and if they go on to finish in the top four and claim some silverware his case will be difficult to overlook.