Roberto di Matteo pulled off what may be regarded as one of the greatest miracles in football’s history- guiding a Chelsea side struggling to find consistency to the holy grail of European football, against all odds.
Various commentators have thus described him as ‘the greatest caretaker manager of all time’. Even though he was sacked after just eight months in charge as first team manager, he was and still is viewed in the highest regard by Chelsea fans.
Roberto di Matteo is considered by fans as a true Chelsea legend, not just for his brief yet successful tenure as the club’s manager but also for his contribution to Chelsea’s resurgence in the late 90s.
But his status brings home the question – If Di Matteo is held in such high regard by the Stamford Bridge faithful why doesn’t Avram Grant command the same respect? After all, Grant came close to winning the European Cup in 2007-08 after the departure of Jose Mourinho. It should be noted here that Mourinho’s Chelsea failed to reach the finals of the European cup in four attempts. In addition to guiding Chelsea to the finals of the UEFA Champions League, Grant also helped Chelsea to the finals of the League cup in the same season and finished runners up to champions Manchester United in the Premier League. So why is that the man who could well have led Chelsea to a potential treble forgotten not just by football fans in general but also by Chelsea fans?
The answer may lie in how Avram Grant managed to get the Chelsea job. Few months before Jose Mourinho left the club, he said, “There are only two ways for me to leave Chelsea, one is to finish the contract in 2010 and another is for Chelsea to sack me”. One thing is pretty clear, Jose was never asked to resign on performance grounds.
He had the backing of his players. But despite being the manager, he lost control over transfers, a major reason why he couldn’t sign Samuel Eto’o back in 2006. So what could possibly be the reason behind this drift between him and the club?
Avram Grant, who happened to be a personal friend of Abramovich was appointed as Director of Football of the club in July 2007, and it certainly did not go down very well.
There was a time when Mourinho was asked to sack one of his assistants and add Grant to his coaching staff, which he clearly refused, thus straining the relationship between him and the club, even further.
Few in the camp labelled Grant as a ‘Spy’ from the onset. He’d go around calling players aside and ask them about their problems and the reason why they looked sad and whether they were being properly utilised.
Many players complained to Mourinho regarding this and thus, the number of team meetings was drastically decreased. Shortly after Mourinho’s resignation, Grant was appointed as the new Chelsea manager,a move many senior players described as a ‘disgrace’.
Supporters branded him as an ‘idiot’ with reference to his lack of top flight coaching certification from UEFA and his lack of expertise in the highest levels of football, though he had done some good work in Israel, both at country as well as club level with the likes of Hapoel Petah Tikva, Maccabi Tel Aviv, Hapoel Haifa and Maccabi Haifa. Several unnamed Chelsea players have been quoted as saying that “Chelsea deserves a bigger coach”.
There were many at the club who agreed to that. Club staff complained to Abramovich regarding Grant’s coaching methods; one of them labelled them as ’25 years behind the times’.
The Israeli did not help his cause either. He used training drills that many players believed to be outdated when compared to the cutting-edge methods they had become accustomed to under Mourinho.
In 2009, Grant appeared alongside John Barnes in Sky Sports’ Goals on a weekend and was still very vocal about Mourinho. “After two years [of Mourinho], the team was down,” he declared. “In any aspect: results, atmosphere, image, it was on the way down. When I took the team, it went up, each month was better, the result was very good, we played very good game, especially against the big club, first time we were in the Champions League final.
“I saw we needed to continue with this because every month was better and better. The philosophy had changed, it was completely [the] other way from the coach that was before me. I thought for the club and me it was good to continue in this direction.”
He further added: “He believes in very organised football, not the creative football. The results are important, but also the way to the results, to produce good football.
“People did not look at the facts, we created history, first time in Champions League [final]. We lost against Liverpool [under Mourinho] which was a less better team than we played against. The atmosphere, the image of the team, everything, the performance of the players. Look at the facts, everything was better.”
This was clearly a one-sided account of Mourinho’s first tenure at Chelsea and to an extent, disrespectful which clearly echoed his contempt towards him. Well, Grant did grind out improved results, with an inherited squad full of superstars, but he was unable to surpass Mourinho’s overall winning ratio of 124 wins in 185 games in the latter’s first tenure at the club.
Grant’s belief that he injected a more ‘entertaining’ and ‘better’ style of football into the club was again strictly confined to himself. Chelsea scored 58 times under Grant in 32 league games.
Under Mourinho, during his first three full seasons at the helm, Chelsea scored 208 times in 114 matches. The scoring ratio achieved by the two managers were therefore, almost identical.
Grant has also used the reference of a Champions league semi final; victory over Liverpool in an attempt to stamp his superiority over Mourinho as a manager.
Yes, Mourinho failed to get the better of Liverpool in two Champions League semi-finals whereas Grant did it in his first attempt. But his team’s performance in the finals is an altogether different story.
Mourinho played three and won three. Grant played two and lost two. At the end of the day, the most important ‘stat’, if any, is the trophy count. In terms of that, the scoreline is pretty emphatic between the two – Mourinho 5 Grant 0.
Speaking of Di Matteo, he is a club legend in the true sense, not just for scoring in two Cup finals for the Blues as a player or for doing the unthinkable as caretaker manager, but also for the little things he did that strengthened his bonding with the players.
Here is one such example: having known that Chelsea had lost a Champions League final four years back and with the likes of Cech, Terry, Ashley Cole, Lampard, Drogba, Malouda and Kalou involved in that rainy night in Moscow, he tried to relax the players before the final against Bayern Munich by arranging for their wives and children to talk and say how proud they were of their husbands and fathers.
Matteo explained, “I needed something personal, to touch the players, Also, I wanted to take a bit of pressure away from them and it did exactly that.” John Terry, who was suspended for the Munich final due to his red card in the second leg of the semi-final against Barcelona said, “It was such a nice touch, it was one thing that will never leave me from that year.
Even the younger players in the dressing room had their parents speaking and welcoming them and wishing them good luck.” Chelsea went on to win the final and after 12 long years of multiple ‘so near yet so far’ moments since he became the owner, Roman Abramovich finally realised his dream of seeing his beloved club lifting the holy grail of European football.
The triumph also meant that Chelsea had become the first ever London based club to lift the Champions League, thus giving them the bragging rights over their city rivals.
Unfortunately, a slump in league form and a 3-0 loss to Juventus in Turin that all but confirmed Chelsea’s elimination from the group stages of the following UEFA Champions League season saw Di Matteo lose his job.
However, that does not tarnish his legacy, not even a single bit. From being ‘The man for the Old Wembley’ to ‘The greatest caretaker manager of all time’, he had already done enough to cement his place in the pantheon of Chelsea legends.
Di Matteo is currently at the helm of Schalke ,where he has done a steady job so far and nearly masterminded the great escape against Real Madrid in the round of 16 of the Champions League. Facing a two-goal first leg deficit, his team eventually lost 5-4 on aggregate but not before his team heroically defeated the defending champions 3-4 in their own backyard.
Grant, since leaving Chelsea has managed Portsmouth and West Ham in England and couldn’t prevent either of the two team’s relegation before moving to Serbia where he had a good but short stint at Partizan Belgrade. On November 2014, he was appointed as manager of the Ghana national football team. Grant guided them to the finals of the African Cup of Nations in 2015, where he was on the losing side, with his fate decided on penalties, not for the first time in his career.
Now, whether Grant has prospered in his career post-Chelsea is clearly subject to individual opinions but one point is almost ubiquitous: at Stamford Bridge and for everyone associated with Chelsea, he will just be remembered as ‘The man who pushed aside Mourinho’.
Source: Souvanik Seal at Goalden Times
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