IN theory, Wednesday night saw Roberto Di Matteo complete the first of four steps needed to realize his transformation from unpopular fill-in to full-time Chelsea manager. In reality, he is far less than a quarter of the way there.
Yahoo! Sports understands that at some point over the past week, Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich made the decision that if Di Matteo, the former assistant who replaced the fired Andre Villas-Boas until the end of the season, wins the Champions League, he will remain in charge and be given an extended contract.
Chelsea clinched a semifinal spot on Wednesday, defeating Benfica 2-1 in the quarterfinal second leg to complete a 3-1 aggregate victory. While a positive step forward, the win merely set up a last-four showdown with Barcelona, the defending champion and red-hot favorite for this year’s event.
If Chelsea, however, performs with as much uncertainty as it did against a plucky Benfica side that was reduced to 10 men for more than half the game, then Barca will have little to fear. Even so, Chelsea has some positive precedent to point to, having beaten the Spanish giants over two legs in 2005 and coming within a minute of doing it again in 2009.
Though it might seem obvious to an outsider for Di Matteo to earn the contractual prize of full-time manager if his team were to win the toughest club competition in the world, this is Chelsea and nothing is quite as it seems. Most suspect that Abramovich had a big-name coaching replacement lined up in the summer when he ousted Villas-Boas, with Jose Mourinho, Laurent Blanc, Pep Guardiola and Joachim Loew having all been mentioned.
All of Abramovich’s former appointments have been either established big names or managerial rising stars, like Villas-Boas was supposed to be. Di Matteo has limited coaching pedigree, having been sacked by West Brom in his only previous English Premier League job. But, if the Italian manager does manage to give the Russian owner the prize he craves more than any other, it would ensure Di Matteo has the chance to continue to make a name for himself.
“When Di Matteo came in, it was very much a stop-gap,” said a European soccer source who deals closely with the club. “But things have changed and Abramovich has been impressed by what he has seen. He feels that if the run in Europe ends with the ultimate prize, then [Di Matteo] would have earned the right to take this team forward into the future.”
A Frank Lampard penalty put Chelsea in strong position Wednesday, and when Benfica’s Maxi Periera was sent off for a crass challenge at John Obi Mikel it seemed to be all over. But Benfica kept fighting and gave itself a late chance when Javi Garcia capitalized on Chelsea indecision to score with a header and put the Portuguese side just one goal away from a shock.
But Raul Meireles broke away in injury-time and lashed home a right-foot shot to seal it for Chelsea and secure a semifinal spot for the sixth time in nine seasons.
It might not have been fully convincing, but either way things have perked up significantly under Di Matteo, and the spirit around Chelsea now is unrecognizable from the dark days toward the end of the Villas-Boas era.
The club still lies in fifth place in the EPL table but has some swagger and confidence about it again. Most important, the core group of players who had lost faith in Villas-Boas is putting in maximum effort for the new man.
All of which comes as something of a surprise. The word was that Di Matteo wasn’t a particularly popular figure as assistant coach to Villas-Boas and didn’t show much tactical genius at West Brom.
But he has won over the dressing room and reminded these players of their responsibilities. Senior figures like Lampard and John Terry believe in him, Brazilian defender Ramires spoke out very strongly in favor of his full-time appointment, while Fernando has put his early-season troubles firmly behind him.
Barcelona will provide a new challenge altogether, but heading into the semifinals Chelsea’s season has something it was total devoid of just a few short weeks ago: hope.