Roberto Di Matteo plots perfect night for Chelsea to stay alive
At the start of the season at Stamford Bridge, the Chelsea team were introduced as "European champion Petr Cech, European champion Branislav Ivanovic..." More than anyone else, though, that branding applies to Roberto Di Matteo.
The manager was a quiet insurgent last year, happy to surprise his way to the Champions League title, doing what no Chelsea manager had done before. This year he is in a different position. The Italian cannot be an outsider with those medals around his neck. Instead, he is close to being on a pedestal, more confident in his pronouncements, but he is also there to aimed at.
Tonight Shakhtar Donetsk come to the Bridge, and a Chelsea defeat will leave Di Matteo's side with an huge battle to stay in the Champions League. On Sunday, it is Liverpool. Both visitors will be desperate to beat Chelsea, as teams play beyond themselves to knock them down. Chelsea have only won one of their last four games in all competitions, and even that needed extra-time against a Manchester United reserve side.
That aside, they were well beaten by a fine Shakhtar display in Ukraine, outgunned by United in the league and then pinned back by Swansea City last Saturday. "We need a perfect game against Shakhtar," said Di Matteo, who must do without the injured Ashley Cole tonight after the left-back strained a hamstring against Swansea. "Every individual player going on the pitch has to perform at the highest of their ability. It's important we start well and get the crowd behind us and draw confidence from a good start."
This is going to be a difficult few days for Di Matteo. So much of his success at Chelsea so far – and he has been manager, absurd as it sounds, for only eight months – is down to his ability to calm stormy water. Andre Villas-Boas was a destructive, dynamic force, eager to tear down and rebuild. Di Matteo is gentler, and by renewing the unity and focus of the squad he helped deliver the FA Cup and the Champions League title.
His record at least stands comparison to his predecessors in the Stamford Bridge hotseat.
But it's a high-wire balancing act and Stamford Bridge remains a maelstrom of controversy and speculation. In one four-day spell, Chelsea lost a controversial five-goal game to Manchester United, complained about alleged racial abuse by Mark Clattenburg, won a drama-laden nine-goal game against United, saw one of their supporters shame the club with what looked like a racist gesture and had Pep Guardiola linked with Di Matteo's job again.
It was a hectic week, but at the end of it the manager did not try to stop the "racism" story but rather redirect it. He said there was a "lot of evidence" that referees favoured United. The Di Matteo of last season, the careful caretaker, hardly ever spoke out like that. Knowing that there was already enough attention on Chelsea, he would say the minimum require. So this felt like a different Di Matteo. Last season he wanted to slow down those currents of controversy which shape English football. This year he seeks to master them. Sir Alex Ferguson had said he disbelieved the accusations against Clattenburg. Di Matteo swung back, advising him not to talk about other teams, and adding that the United manager was favoured by officials.
As for Guardiola, Di Matteo is battle-hardened. He said: "I fully feel the support from Roman Abramovich, and the confidence. It's been from day one, the speculation, so it doesn't affect me too much. I have my own destiny in my hands and the club and the owner is behind it."
The confidence of being European champions comes at a price. After beating Chelsea so well – 2-1 is a poor reflection – in the Donbass Arena last month, Shakhtar will be all out to claim the scalp again tonight. The Ukrainians are a very good team but have yet to win in England: if they manage it here, they will qualify for the last 16. It would also leave Chelsea fearing a defeat in Turin that could knock them out – Juventus had the better of the draw in London.
Then, on Sunday, it's Liverpool as John Terry returns from his four-game domestic ban. The Chelsea captain should play this evening, too, and his presence will bind a struggling back four. The return of the defender, still with his banner hanging down from the Shed End, is a reminder of how Di Matteo has navigated through crises and kept the team successful.
The difference in Di Matteo now is he is trying to master Chelsea's various storms rather than just survive them.
Robbie's tops: Chelsea record
Roberto Di Matteo has the joint best win percentage of a Chelsea manager in the Champions League since Jose Mourinho...
J Mourinho P32 W16 D9 L7
A Grant P12 W6 D4 L2
L Scolari P6 W3 D2 L1
G Hiddink P6 W2 D4 L0
C Ancelotti P18 W10 D3 L5
A Villas-Boas P7 W3 D2 L2
R Di Matteo P9 W5 D3 L1
Di Matteo 56%
Kick-off 7.45pm, Stamford Bridge
TV Sky Sports 3 Referee C V Carballo (Sp)
Odds Chelsea Evens Draw 5-2 Shakhtar 11-4