Early Doors

Di Matteo starting to make his mark

Early Doors

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Di Matteo shows he can point and shout just as well as Terry

When things are going for you as a manager, they really go for you. Just ask Roberto Di Matteo.

A little more than a month ago, Andre Villas-Boas dropped several senior Chelsea players to the bench for the Champions League trip to Napoli for the first leg of their last 16 tie. There was a great deal of consternation as Frank Lampard, Michael Essien and Ashley Cole walked into the Stadio San Paolo arena sporting those nasty fluorescent orange training tops.

The Blues lost the match 3-1, a result which was one of the final nails in Villas-Boas's coffin as the club's manager, even though the fact that all three performed poorly when they came off the bench has already been pretty much written out of history.

Fast forward to last night and interim boss Di Matteo — who was in charge as Chelsea fought their way to a 4-1 win in the return leg to progress — did the same for the first leg of Chelsea's quarter-final first leg at Benfica. Only this time he came away from the Estadio da Luz with a 1-0 win.

Once again there was no Essien or Lampard in the starting line-up in the Portuguese capital. The latter of those two midfielders caused a bit of a stir in the build-up of this match by daring to tell Chelsea TV that "we're not as good as we used to be," even though that was stating a fact so obvious that even someone with no knowledge of football would conclude the same from a cursory glance at the last decade's league tables. Lampard may just as well have been talking about The Simpsons, the toys inside a Kinder Surprise or the new layout of Facebook for all the new light his comments shed.

Fernando Torres was preferred to Didier Drogba in one of six changes from the side which drew 0-0 with Tottenham at the weekend.

Not only that, but just as Villas-Boas had fielded Jose Bosingwa a left-back ahead of Cole in Naples, Di Matteo started the much-maligned Paulo Ferreira at right-back in Lisbon as Chelsea set about successfully stifling one of the most creative midfields in Europe.

Salomon Kalou made only his eighth start of the season, and his first in Europe, but he gave Chelsea a precious advantage with his 75th-minute goal, set up expertly by Torres. The Spaniard's assist was his fourth of the tournament this season, second only to Real Madrid's Karim Benzema and Benfica's own Nicolas Gaitan, who both have five.

Di Matteo was vindicated in his decision to rotate, and vowed to continue in that vein for the rest of the season.

He said: "We've been playing so many high-intensity games. Manchester City last week, Spurs on Saturday, and tonight was another one.

"It's a question of trying to energise the team and freshen it up. We knew Benfica played with a high tempo so we needed fresh players who could run.

"I'm involving everybody in the squad. I'm rotating, we need everybody until the end of the season."

Fears that Di Matteo temporary tenure in charge would be mainly as an Avram Grant-style 'yes man' were not exactly allayed when he was overshadowed by John Terry in their press conference before the Napoli game at Stamford Bridge, nor when the Chelsea captain barked orders from the touchline during extra time of that match.

However, the former West Brom manager has kept his dignity throughout, and has quietly gone about engineering a great turnaround in Chelsea's fortunes. He has won five of his seven games in charge so far. His only defeat in that run came at Manchester City, who have won all 15 of their home games in the league this season.

The Blues are now odds on to reach the semi-finals in Europe, while they are already slated for the last four of the FA Cup, where they will face Tottenham. Their position left former Chelsea boss and England job hopeful Glenn Hoddle purring about them reaching the final and Di Matteo getting the job full-time, prompting a beautifully understated "calm down, Glenn" from fellow pundit  Graeme Souness.

Still, Di Matteo is making the most of the unique position in which he has found himself. As the clubs interim boss, he has not been spoken of as a serious candidate to be offered the job full-time in the summer, especially while the vain hope that Jose Mourinho may return still pervades.

So Di Matteo might as well take a few risks, concentrating on lifting the spirits of a camp deflated under his predecessor and also try and show his own managerial acumen while he's at it.

So far he has succeeded in doing so, and it may well impress other prospective employers even if Roman Abramovich is not convinced.

- - -

QUOTE OF THE DAY: "The perception of some people is deluded as the facts about my teams clearly speak for themselves. It is a tag that has followed me around for a long time and one I'm never going to be able to shift. I can't do anything about that but I can win football matches." — West Ham manager Sam Allardyce reacts to negative chants his team's perceived direct style of play after the Hammers won 2-0 at Peterborough.

FOREIGN VIEW: "I come from achieving a great triumph, a success of everyone, of a youth sector of the highest level. Now I am living something totally unexpected, a dream which president Moratti has presented to me and which I will do everything to honour to the best of my ability." - Internazionale caretaker coach Andrea Stramaccioni, the club's former youth team boss, speaks of his delight at taking the reins following Claudio Ranieri's sacking. The 36-year-old was upstaged in his own press conference was when Mario Balotelli rocked up at the club's Appiano Gentile training ground in his Ferrari and waltzed around the media room. Why always him?

COMING UP: An enticing Champions League double whammy for you this evening — follow full live coverage of AC Milan v Barcelona and Marseille v Bayern Munich at 19:45.

Later in the day there will be the latest columns from Jim White and Andy Mitten, while Wigan's Shaun Maloney gets put Under the Microscope in our in-depth video analysis of his performance in the win over Liverpool.

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