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Chelsea from chumps to champs
AFP
08:33 AEST Sun May 20 2012

From zeros to heroes, chumps to champs: in three short months Roberto Di Matteo steered Chelsea back from the precipice to the greatest moment in the club's history.

Chelsea's stunning Champions League victory over Bayern Munich on Saturday completed one of the most dramatic reversals of fortune in football history, the glorious final act of a season which had once threatened to unravel.

When Di Matteo was appointed as interim manager following the dismissal of Andre Villas-Boas in early March, few observers viewed the former Chelsea midfielder as a viable long-term candidate for the job.

In the days that followed Villas-Boas's dismissal, a laundry list of potential managers were name-checked in connection with the vacancy at Stamford Bridge -- Pep Guardiola, Rafael Benitez, David Moyes, even former boss Jose Mourinho.

Meanwhile, down at Chelsea's Cobham training base, on the leafy outskirts of London, Di Matteo was quietly setting about the task of restoring belief in a team who had won only once in their previous seven games.

"Confidence plays a big part in an athlete's life and it was important to remind these boys they are fantastic players and have been so for many years, you don't just lose that in half a season or so," Di Matteo recalled.

"I think it was just a question of reinstalling some confidence in every individual player and into the team."

Senior members of the first-team squad who had been marginalised under the Villas-Boas regime were brought back into the fold.

Frank Lampard, who had endured a frosty relationship with Villas-Boas, was now viewed as a trusted lieutenant.

"We were struggling for confidence, struggling on the pitch," Lampard revealed.

"Rather than come in and make drastic changes, the manager came in and spoke to everyone individually and created a confidence in the group from the training ground to the pitch."

Di Matteo's work reaped instant dividends, with Chelsea securing a 2-0 FA Cup replay win at Birmingham before digging out a gritty 1-0 victory against Stoke.

"The first couple of results were hard work -- we weren't playing very well, but we got wins," Lampard said.

However it was not until Chelsea's 4-1 victory over Napoli in the second leg of their Champions League last 16 tie that Di Matteo's quiet revolution took off.

Trailing 3-1 after the first leg, Chelsea roared into the last eight with a performance that recalled the club's dominance of a few years earlier.

Tellingly it was Chelsea's old guard who proved instrumental in the win -- Didier Drogba, John Terry and Lampard all getting on the scoresheet before Branislav Ivanovic's winner.

"The Napoli game changed everything," Lampard said. "It was obviously a massive turning point -- the major turning point -- in our season."

With confidence restored and united behind their manager, Chelsea set about salvaging their season.

Belief solidified after Di Matteo masterminded a 1-0 win at Benfica in the first leg of the quarter-finals before Chelsea completed the job in the return.

On the domestic front, Di Matteo was also able to juggle his resources effectively to secure a place in the FA Cup final after a 5-1 demolition of Tottenham in their Wembley semi-final.

Three days later, Chelsea produced a stubborn defensive display to defeat Barcelona 1-0 in the first leg of the semi-finals at Stamford Bridge.

Their heroic performance in the return at the Camp Nou, when their 10 men managed to hang on for nearly an hour to secure a 3-2 aggregate win, clinched Chelsea's date with destiny at Munich.

Whether Saturday's triumph is enough to earn Di Matteo a long-term crack at the Chelsea manager's job remains to be seen. The club has said consistently it will make no decision on a successor until the summer.

But Bayern coach Jupp Heynckes is adamant that Di Matteo should be given a chance.

"He's a very cool person who's very much in control, and that step-by-step he was able to improve the contact with the players and that he was able to create harmony," Heynckes said.

"I think he's done a marvellous job. I don't think there's any argument against him continuing."


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