Thursday, November 22, 2012


When Roberto Di Matteo named his team at Turin’s luxurious Golden Palace Hotel on Tuesday lunchtime, it was a final act of defiance.

Fernando Torres paid for his pitiful performance at West Bromwich on Saturday and Di Matteo knew the evening would end in yet another change in personnel. On this occasion, in the office of the Chelsea manager.
But Di Matteo sensed the end was coming long before his 42nd and last game in charge. As early as last summer, when he dared question the strength of Torres’ ambition at Chelsea, the European Cup-winning coach was left in no doubt about who is actually in charge at Stamford Bridge.

When he was finally appointed ‘manager and first-team coach’, 25 days after landing club football’s greatest prize in Munich’s Allianz Arena, Di Matteo presented Roman Abramovich with a list of summer transfer targets.

Radamel Falcao, the free-scoring striker with 36 goals in 50 appearances for Atletico Madrid in his first season in Spain, was at the top of it.

But before Chelsea’s manager could even make a case for the Colombian striker he was cut short. Abramovich told him he already had a world-class finisher and the message was clear: Torres was to play. It was a message that was repeated on an almost daily basis.

That was life at Chelsea for Di Matteo, operating under almost intolerable conditions long before he axed Torres ahead of the shocking 3-0 defeat against Juventus. He knew he had to select Torres. It was the owner’s wish. But he also knew there were problems using Torres when the players Abramovich had brought in did not suit the Spaniard’s style of play.

Di Matteo had run the analysis on Torres, asking the club’s technical team for a breakdown of the 81 goals he scored for Liverpool before his move south to London.

When Di Matteo went through the detail, a worrying pattern emerged that convinced him Chelsea did not have the personnel to accommodate his game.

At Anfield, 56 of his goals (69 per cent) were engineered by defence-splitting passes, usually from  Steven Gerrard or Xabi Alonso. At Chelsea, players like Juan Mata, Frank Lampard, Ramires and John Mikel Obi — together with new arrivals Oscar and Eden Hazard – preferred to pass their way through the opposition. They did not spring opposition defences and Di Matteo was already beginning to doubt whether Torres was committed to the Chelsea project.

Di Matteo’s relationship with technical director Michael Emenalo was already strained, but it was stretched to the limit by the pressure to get Torres among the goalscorers.

Some sympathised, but others were openly questioning the motivation of a striker who was once regarded as the best finisher in world football.

Upstairs in his office at the club’s Cobham training centre and puffing on cigarettes out on the balcony, Di Matteo frequently discussed Torres’ form with assistants Eddie Newton and Steve Holland.

It hardly helped that the £50million striker had confided in team-mates that he was unhappy at the club, even saying as much to a Spanish journalist on the night Chelsea lifted the European Cup.

But a new season amounted to a new start for Di Matteo and Abramovich was quick to apply the same approval index rating he uses to judge every manager — Champions League progress.

The day after Chelsea drew 2-2 with Juventus in the opening fixture in Group E, when goals from Arturo Vidal and Fabio Quagliarella secured a point for the Italians, Abramovich arrived unannounced at the training ground.

He asked Di Matteo, his coaching staff and some of the players if they still had the desire for another crack at the competition after last season’s incredible triumph.

By 3am on Wednesday, Di Matteo was clearing the decks of his spacious office after being sacked at the training ground by chairman Bruce Buck and chief executive Ron Gourlay, just over an hour after they arrived back from defeat in Turin.

He knew it was coming, saying farewell and shaking hands with the players in the dressing room at the Juventus Stadium.

These were private moments and a significant number of the team apologised to Di Matteo for failing to recreate the spirit that led to FA Cup and European glory last season. Three days earlier, in the dressing room at The Hawthorns, the fingers had been pointed by the players in a post-match inquest following the 2-1 defeat. It sounded explosive.

Holland, the assistant manager, had arrived at the ground with a black eye and a cut underneath his left cheek. After the fireworks that followed the final whistle, it is a wonder there were no further casualties.

Chelsea’s season was beginning to fall apart and the situation was irretrievable even then.

Abramovich had to be talked out of firing Di Matteo on Saturday by his close circle of advisors, but the Champions League clash with Juve was the tipping point.

On Sunday the players came in for a warm-down at Cobham and flew on a delayed flight to Turin on Monday after Di Matteo held a short meeting with coaching staff.

In Turin, Chelsea’s players picked up on Di Matteo’s distress and it transmitted to the squad in a subdued and sometimes directionless training session at Juve’s stadium on Monday evening.

They knew he was about to make a tactical switch, but the message was muddled and there was uncertainty among the players as they chatted in hushed tones over dinner in the team hotel.

In the team meeting at lunchtime on Tuesday, when Di Matteo announced that Hazard would play up front instead of Torres, this was met with the tacit approval of many of the players.

On the field they failed spectacularly, however, and Di Matteo, who spent 45 minutes talking to his Italian advisor in the tunnel after the defeat, knew the game was up.

As they all got on the airport bus which delivered them to their Titan Airways flight — which finally took off at 1.45am from northern Italy — the atmosphere was tense.

By that point Di Matteo and Newton, both in sharp, grey suits, were hanging on for grim life as the bus, with Buck and Gourlay in attendance, made the short trip to the aircraft steps.

Ashley Cole giggled a couple of times. Petr Cech, a decent guy, made small talk with the kit men. Torres, who was reading a book entitled Leyenda (Legend) on the trip out to Turin, fiddled with his phone.

Di Matteo knew that his number was up, unable to motivate a striker who has scored just four goals in the Barclays Premier League this season.

Even Torres’ solitary Champions League strike was a fluke, a ricochet that somehow rebounded into the net of Andriy Pyatov in the 3-2 victory over Shakhtar Donetsk on November 7.

Undoubtedly Di Matteo under-estimated the owner’s obsession with winning silverware. Abramovich has not forgotten Jose Mourinho gesturing to him at Wembley, counting the trophies with his fingers when Chelsea won the FA Cup in 2007.

Chelsea started this season with a chance to win seven trophies, but the champions of Europe had already surrendered the Community Shield against Manchester City and were soundly beaten by Atletico Madrid in the Super Cup in Monaco.

Abramovich, who rarely travels to away games because he does not like to conform to stuffy boardroom etiquette by wearing a suit, became increasingly agitated as Di Matteo’s summer target  finished them off with a hat-trick. Falcao was fantastic that night.

Di Matteo’s team were also adjusting to a refined playing system as they encouraged Cech to throw the ball out to his back four instead of launching it forward from his penalty area.

Off the field Di Matteo skilfully and diplomatically handled delicate situations, especially after John Terry was banned by the FA for four games and fined £220,000 for racially insulting Anton Ferdinand.

The incident did not even happen on Di Matteo’s watch — Andre Villas-Boas was manager at the time — but the Italian attempted to protect the reputation of the club.

Even last Sunday, his preparations for the trip to Turin were disrupted when Ashley Cole was unexpectedly called to an interview with the FA over the allegations against referee Mark Clattenburg.

Suddenly the FA’s compliance team were swarming all over the training ground again, taking Mikel, Ramires and Juan Mata into neutralised zones for hours of taped interviews.

Di Matteo has deep reservations about Chelsea’s complaint, and, naturally, believes that it has affected their recent results.

They made the allegation two hours after they were beaten 3-2 at Stamford Bridge by Manchester United, finishing the game with nine men after the dismissals of Torres and Branislav Ivanovic.

Since then they have picked up two points from the last 12 in the Premier League and require something of a miracle to avoid the humiliation of exiting the group stage of the Champions League.

That brutal reality dawned on Di Matteo when Chelsea arrived back at the training ground in the dead of night after the Turin trip.

Torres was one of the first off the bus, jumping straight into his car and slipping on his tracksuit top to beat the near-freezing temperatures.

By then, Di Matteo knew it was time to get his coat.



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