James Lawton: Di Matteo can hold head high as most successful caretaker manager in football's history
After all the improbable glory, and the most remarkable war on the most formidable of odds, the chill of his native Alps finally came to Roberto Di Matteo.
It was always unlikely that Chelsea would maintain their foothold in Europe against the poise and organisation of Italy’s restored giants Juventus and when Petr Cech, for much of the night a reassuring source of defiance, raced recklessly from his goal in the last minutes, Di Matteo’s face told a story of extreme resignation.
Sebastian Giovinco stroked in Juventus’s third goal and for Di Matteo there could be little alternative but to consider the fate he was about to share with such heavyweight figures as Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti and Big Phil Scolari.
He could comfort himself at least by the knowledge that he too had won one of the great trophies of football and if his fate had been decided in less than a full joined-up season which had brought in two major titles, including the greatest available in club football, it did little to staunch the pain.
There was, after all, another prospect announcing itself at the start of a game which Juve eventually won in a canter of growing assurance.
For a few shining moments Di Matteo appeared to have pulled it off once more. He seemed to have again found the best of Chelsea under the bizarre pressure they carry into almost every situation.
The illusion passed quickly enough but it was dazzling for a brief and gilded interlude. With Fernando Torres smouldering on the bench – if only he could regain his old aura as one of the great scorers as easily as he slips into the role of a victim – the embattled manager’s forward tinkering was within an inch of a beautiful fulfilment.
Eden Hazard, deputed to produce a more subtle use of space behind the Juve cover in place of the failed barnstorming of his Spanish team-mate, was denied by a brilliant save from Gianluigi Buffon after a glorious run from Oscar.
That was the flash of the new Chelsea Di Matteo has been expected to develop on the back of last season’s heroics – and under the shadow of Pep Guardiola.
As he promised, there was plenty of first-half evidence that the team had not been broken by the dressing-room recriminations following the bad defeat at West Bromwich Albion on Saturday. There was also reason to believe that Gary Cahill was indulging in more than mere public relations when he declared that the players remain solidly behind the methods and the style of Di Matteo.
That united front would have been looking even more impressive if Fabio Quagliarella had not managed to deflect a shot from the maestro Andrea Pirlo after 38 minutes. It gave the Italians a surge of confidence which Chelsea, and not least Ashley Cole, had done much to subdue, but it might have been decisive early in the second half if the Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir had accepted the claims of Mirko Vucinic that he had been fouled by Cahill.
As it was, Chelsea were brought back into the game by the drive of Ramires and the subtlety of Oscar, Hazard and Juan Mata, the Spaniard particularly threatening before being mugged on the edge of the box. However, the burden on Chelsea was growing by the minute and in the 61st it threatened to be insupportable when Vucinic got the better of David Luiz and Arturo Vidal’s deflected shot, from oceans of space, beat Cech.
Di Matteo permitted himself a small gulp. It was of the harsh tasting reality that, weirdly incongruous as it might be anywhere beyond the workings of Chelsea, he was contemplating the last days of his short and extraordinarily happy life as the most successful caretaker manager in the history of English football.
So what could he do? Make one last reach for the heroics which have been such a constant factor in his astonishing reign. He pulled off holding midfielder John Obi Mikel, and sent on first the combative Victor Moses and then the forlornly desperate Torres.
There was not a lot left within Di Matteo’s powers as he watched the life drain out of Chelsea’s hold on the trophy which had been so recently delivered to Roman Abramovich.
Chelsea are now at the mercy of other results although none of these are now a matter of concern for Di Matteo.
Today he walked though the exit door which had beckoned strongly right up to the moment Bayern Munich were beaten in the Champions League final on their own home soil last spring.
But of course it was always ajar, even after that stunning upset of all expectations. It always is at Stamford Bridge. In the end Di Matteo might console himself with the fact that it was nothing personal.