Roberto Di Matteo -

Chelsea put down a marker in Europe on Tuesday night by beating an in-form Benfica side 1-0 at the Estadio da Luz in the Champions League quarter-finals. A solitary Salomon Kalou strike means that the Blues are overwhelming favourites now to reach the last four of the continent’s top club competition; no mean feat given that when Andre Villas Boas was sacked the side were 3-1 down to Napoli in the first leg of their last 16 tie. The reason for this upturn? Roberto Di Matteo.

Firstly, one of the downfalls of Villas Boas was his rotation of the squad and seemingly inability to avoid irritation from some of the club’s long-standings senior figures. The likes of Frank Lampard hit back at the Portuguese trainer’s selection methods, and may well have contributed to the ex-Porto man’s sacking.

Di Matteo bravely decided to shuffle his pack for the game against Benfica, making six changes from the team that drew 0-0 with Tottenham, including dropping Lampard to the bench, along with Didier Drogba and Michael Essien. The Italian’s decision to field out-of-favour players such as Kalou and Paulo Ferreira raised a few eyebrows, but proved to be a masterclass. Some many times coaches are slated for getting their team selection incorrect; Di Matteo must be praised for getting his right.

Not only did he get the team selection correct, fielding a team suited to win the fixture, Lampard was graceful in being dropped and will still back Di Matteo; something that was not afforded to Villas Boas. As a former Chelsea player the ex-midfielder seemingly has more respect from the playing squad; a key attribute for any successful coach.

However, it has not been solely in Europe that the side have improved since the managerial change. Despite only drawing against a plucky Spurs team in their last Premier League fixture, the side have been better in the league and a five-point gap between fourth and fifth is in no way insurmountable. The Blues are also through to the FA Cup semi-finals, with glory two games at Wembley away.

Looking back at Di Matteo’s managerial career, he has excelled at MK Dons and West Brom, and it was something of a surprise when he agreed to become Villas Boas’ assistant rather than pursue another head coach position. The Italian obviously has the acumen and attitude to be number one at a club, and his tactical knowledge seems good.

Without getting too carried away, Chelsea are in a transitional period and there is a lot of work that needs to be completed before the west London team can get back to being title challengers. However, with a popular and astute Di Matteo at the helm, the club’s chances are looking up.

By Gareth McKnight

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