FA Cup win adds to Di Matteo's CV
ASKED to namecheck his managerial influences after steering Chelsea to a seventh FA Cup triumph, Roberto Di Matteo reeled off Arrigo Sacchi, Ruud Gullit and Dino Zoff. But it was a coach he did not reference who has been the biggest influence these last two spectacular months.
Any successful manager needs the luck to be in the right place, at the right time, and the ability to learn from mistakes. Di Matteo was the man on hand at Stamford Bridge when Roman Abramovich decided to cut his losses and end the renewal project he had entrusted to Andre Villas-Boas. The Italian then rectified the mistakes his former boss had made.
Di Matteo showed humility, treated players with respect, backed their ability - and reminded them of it. He also made some astute tactical adjustments that showcased his senior players' strengths instead of exposing their weaknesses. It is not rocket science, but football remains, in its core aspects, a simple game while management, in any walk of life, is about dealing with people.
"First of all I started with communicating with the players," said Di Matteo, as he reflected on the turnaround he has overseen. "They are good players, there is no doubt about that, but we are all human and when things don't go your way sometimes you have doubts. The only way for us to be able to win was to get everyone on board and involved, give them confidence and trust them to play. I spoke to every individual player.
"The Birmingham game [the FA Cup fifth-round replay] was crucial because it was my first game and if we didn't win it could have gone completely the other way. Every victory since has just cemented their confidence and we rolled on from one win to the next."
Di Matteo is putting together an impressive CV but, even if Chelsea lift the Champions League, there are no guarantees he will be made manager on a permanent basis. This is because the job at Chelsea is seen as requiring a man who can rebuild from scratch, not just paper over the cracks. But does it require that? Chelsea are regarded as Los Geriatricos but of their leading players only Didier Drogba, 34, and Frank Lampard, 33, are over 31 years old and both look to have plenty of match-winning performances left in them.
"If you live a professional life and you train well, you can prolong your career," said Di Matteo. "We have many examples in the last 10 years of players that have played up to 38, 40. Obviously, physiologically it changes a little bit because your recovery time will be a bit different, but careers are much longer now than 15 years ago."
The evidence is not just at Old Trafford, where Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs have a combined age of 75. Lampard is two years younger than Mark van Bommel and only a year older than Xavi and Andrea Pirlo; John Terry is three years younger than Carles Puyol; Drogba is the same age as Antonio Di Natale, who so troubled Arsenal at the start of this season, and a year older than Miroslav Klose.
It is evolution, not revolution, which is required at Stamford Bridge. Their dressing room has to be worked with, not taken on, but with a cadre of younger players coming through in Ramires, Gary Cahill, Juan Mata, John Obi Mikel and David Luiz there is no need to fight the older ones. They need merely to be assured they have a part to play and for those words to be followed through often enough in team selection.
Kenny Dalglish suggested that Chelsea's greater experience was the difference, but of his starting XI only Jordan Henderson and Jay Spearing were callow. Liverpool's problem was just as much a lack of the belief that Di Matteo has restored to Chelsea. Abysmal league form has so sapped confidence that Dalglish opted to pack midfield for protection, leaving Luis Suarez isolated. It failed: Ramires took advantage of a series of errors, then Drogba scored his customary Wembley goal.
After Andy Carroll was belatedly introduced, and scored, Liverpool were injected with confidence. But for the calm heads and sharp eyes of referee Phil Dowd and his part-time assistant Andrew Garratt (a Walsall bank manager in real life), who rightly decided there was too much doubt to award Carroll a second goal, they would have forced an extra period against tiring opposition.
Carroll's cameo augured well for his personal future after a difficult year but, if he plays, proper wingers are required, capable and prepared to cross the ball. Yet Suarez prefers passes into feet and Bellamy wants the ball in behind. Dalglish, and his employers, have much to ponder. A once-dominant club seems now to have been in transition for two decades with no end in sight.
Scorers. Chelsea: Ramires 11, Drogba 52. Liverpoo: Carroll 64
Substitutes: Chelsea Meireles (Ramires, 76), Malouda (Mata, 90). Liverpool Carroll (Spearing, 55), Kuyt (Bellamy, 76).
Booked: Chelsea Mikel. Liverpool Agger, Suarez.
Man of the match Cech. Match rating 6/10.
Possession: Chelsea 45% Liverpool 55%.
Attempts on target: Chelsea 6 Liverpool 10.
Referee P Dowd (Staffordshire).
Man for man marking - by Nick Szczepanik at Wembley
Petr Cech: Almost a spectator until Andy Carroll beat him for the first goal. But his save from the Liverpool substitute's powerful header won the Cup. 7/10
Jose Bosingwa: Had few problems with Downing as Liverpool laboured but his error let them back into the game. 5
John Terry: Untroubled until the arrival of Carroll, who turned him inside out for the Liverpool goal and lost him for what could have been the equaliser. 6
Branislav Ivanovic: Usual solid performance alongside Terry and stood firm as Liverpool exerted pressure in final half-hour. 6
Ashley Cole: Not the most spectacular game for this serial FA Cup winner but defended soundly and got forward when possible. 6
Jon Obi Mikel: Looked comfortable and unhurried in the early stages but put pressure on himself with a yellow card for a foul on Gerrard. 6
Frank Lampard: Sat further back in midfield than usual but still got forward to play the pass for Drogba's goal. 7
Ramires: His goal was a rerun of his effort at the Nou Camp. 7
Juan Mata: Liverpool could never subdue him. Found space all over the pitch and his awareness and accurate pass created Chelsea's opening goal. 8
Salomon Kalou: A constant thorn in Glen Johnson's side. 6
Didier Drogba: Four FA Cup finals, four wins, four goals. Won every ball played up to him and never let the defence rest. 8
Best off the bench: Raul Meireles for Kalou, 77. Fresh legs when former club were pressing.
Pepe Reina: Will not want to see repeats of Chelsea's opening goal, beaten at his near post. 5
Glen Johnson: One spectacular volleyed attempt on goal, but was more often required to defend, and did it well. 6
Martin Skrtel: Made some timely blocks, but failed badly to close down Drogba quickly enough for Chelsea's second. Yet nearly found a late equaliser. 5
Daniel Agger: Like Skrtel, had his hands full dealing with physical threat of Drogba. 6
Jose Enrique: Badly at fault for Chelsea's first, allowing Ramires to dart past him. 5
Craig Bellamy: Limited by his wide-right brief until given freedom to roam. Might have troubled more if further forward. 6
Jordan Henderson: Largely anonymous performance from a player with much to prove. 4
Jay Spearing: A bad day on the big stage. Could have done better on both Chelsea goals and found the game and his midfield opponents passing him by. 4
Steven Gerrard: Got little help from his supporting cast, but carried the team forward during the late surge that nearly took the game into extra time. 6
Stewart Downing: Had the chance to shine against Bosingwa but failed to deliver until catching the defender in possession for Carroll's goal. 6
Luis Suarez: Unsuited to his early role as a lone forward, especially with the minimal support offered by team-mates. More dangerous alongside Carroll. 6
Best off the bench: Andy Carroll for Spearing, 55. Scored a goal of power and skill, and his leaping header looked in all the way until Cech intervened.