February 21st 2012, Naples. Chelsea faced Napoli in the first leg of the UEFA Champions League Round of 16. Chelsea fans were surprised to see Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard and Michael Essien on the bench. Many speculated that the tempers might be rising in the Chelsea camp after manager André Villas-Boas cancelled the team’s day-off and insisted on a training session after a defeat to Everton in the league. Chelsea went on to lose the game 3-1, which led to Michael Emenalo to question the team selection on behalf of the Russian owner Roman Abromovich. Another defeat within a couple of weeks to West Brom was the last straw that broke Villas-Boas’ back, with the sack following soon.
Picking up the pieces
With a scarce market and availability of suitors, Chelsea appointed assistant manager Roberto Di Matteo as caretaker manager until the end of the season. Di Matteo brought in his fellow teammate and Chelsea academy graduate Eddie Newton, as his assistant. There was a huge difference in the way Di Matteo was perceived. Although Di Matteo had only managed championship sides in MK Dons and West Brom, the squad led by senior players like John Terry and Frank Lampard saw Di Matteo as a true blue. The appointment of Eddie Newton was a masterstroke, to say the least, as the players looked up to him as a Chelsea youth team graduate. On March 6th, within two days of his appointment, Di Matteo faced Birmingham in the FA Cup 5th round replay. Synonymous to Villas-Boas’ defensive 4-3-3, Di Matteo fielded a 4-2-3-1, where the wingers tracked back to help the full-backs and would attack on the counter. Di Matteo rested the senior players with the crucial Champions League home tie in a week’s time. The blues made it to the 6th round after two second-half goals from Juan Mata and Raul Meireles.
Chelsea then beat Stoke 1-0 at home to stay in 5th in the league, behind Arsenal. They now faced Napoli at the Bridge, on the verge of getting knocked out, with an away goal to their name. Sturridge was a surprise name on the team sheet with the likes of Solomon Kalou and Florent Malouda on the bench. Chelsea got off to a great start and reduced their 2-goal deficit, with headers from Drogba and Terry. Chelsea had the away goal advantage for about 8 minutes before Gokhan Inler pulled one back for the visitors. They found themselves on the back foot again until Lampard scored from the spot to take the game to extra time. Branislav Ivanovic then smashed one right before the break to take Chelsea ahead. They went on to win the game 5:4 on aggregate. When Fernando Torres replaced Sturridge in the 63rd minute, there was a faint change in the formation, which had a huge effect on the play. Torres, an outright striker, replaced Sturridge who started on the right flank. Once the Spaniard was introduced, he went up top to link up with Drogba who started the game. Ramires who started at defensive midfield would occupy the pocket of space on the right, with Lampard covering for him by dropping back.
The Londoners then faced Leicester City in the FA Cup Quarter Final at home. With the Champions League quarter-finals just a fortnight away and a trip to the Etihad in 3 days, Di Matteo rested the senior players and started Torres and Sturridge. Torres went on to play his best game in a Chelsea shirt, with two goals and two assists to his name. Chelsea booked a Wembley semi-final date with a 5-2 win over the Foxes. Di Matteo’s first defeat came at the hands of Roberto Mancini’s Manchester City, as Carlos Tevez came off the bench to provide the assist for the winning goal. Chelsea then hosted Tottenham, the second Top-4 opponent in the space of three days. This London derby ended in a goalless draw. Playing in three competitions at this crucial stage of the season meant heavy rotation of the squad. They had a commendable strike force with Drogba, Torres, and Sturridge pitching in from the wing. The wingers were forced to play in central roles at times and handled their tasks efficiently. Mata, Kalou, and Malouda were shuffled around with the Spaniard being the most popular of the lot. The midfield was solid with the likes of Lampard, Micheal Essien, John Obi Mikel and Meireles and functioned harmoniously. The defence, on the other hand, was of some concern to the Swiss manager. Ashley Cole and Branislav Ivanovic were the regular starters, but due to the high volume of games, Di Matteo brought in 21-year-old Ryan Bertrand to share some of the load on the left-hand side. Ivanovic was having one of his best seasons for Chelsea but did have injuries from time to time. Paulo Ferreira was the only alternate right-back, who at the time was considering retirement. This forced Di Matteo to improvise and play one of the centre backs at right-back as well. Chelsea travelled to Lisbon for the Champions League quarter-final 1st leg, the first of 5 games in 2 weeks. The away victory against Benfica sparked four consecutive wins in all competitions for the Blues. Chelsea scored four at Villa Park on the weekend and went on to secure a Champions League semi-final berth midweek, after defeating Benfica 3-1 on aggregate.
April was a tiresome month for Chelsea as they had consecutive games with Spurs in the FA Cup, Arsenal in the league, and Barcelona in the Champions League over two legs in the space of 10 days. First, they faced London rivals Tottenham at Wembley in the FA Cup semi-final. Chelsea were on a 6-game unbeaten run, and Spurs were coming off a home defeat to Norwich City. Drogba started the scoring right before half time, and it sent the crowd buzzing. The Chelsea midfield followed suit with Lampard, Mata, Ramires and Malouda getting on the scoresheet. A young Gareth Bale grabbed a consolation goal as the game ended 1:5, and Chelsea advanced to the FA Cup Final. Di Matteo quickly became a fan favourite even though they were out of the top-4. April got off to a wonderful start. Up next, they were to host defending Champions, Barcelona at Stamford Bridge. Di Matteo went for a very conservative lineup. Although it was a 4-3-2-1 on paper, at times, it became a 4-3-1-2. Drogba and Ramires were free to move forward and press with Mata sitting behind the two playing in the No 10 role. Lampard slotted in between the defensive midfield pair of Mikel and Meireles. Barcelona dominated possession and Chelsea at times found themselves in vulnerable positions, but somehow were able to hold Barcelona off and take a 1 nil first-leg victory thanks to a Didier Drogba strike.
Miracle at the Camp Nou
In the second-leg Di Matteo fielded the same lineup, but Pep Guardiola changed his system from a 4-3-3 to a 3-4-2-1, playing a back-3 and benching the full-backs. Sergio Busquets and Xavi played deeper than usual to give the wingers Alexis Sanchez and young Issac Cuenca the freedom to go forward. Barcelona were on a mission, and it showed from the first minute. They dominated play, had most of the possession, and deservedly took the lead in the 35th minute with a Sergio Busquets tap-in. To reemphasize on how dominant Barcelona exactly were, every one of Chelsea’s outfield players except for Ramires were inside their penalty area scrambling to clear the ball. Just a couple of minutes later, John Terry got sent off for violent conduct. Things went from bad to worse as Gary Cahill who started the game alongside Terry was subbed off due to an injury. With both centre-halves out of the game, Chelsea’s defence was primarily made up of Cole-Bosingwa-Ivanovic. We saw Meireles and Mikel taking turns dropping into left centre-back with Bosingwa and Ivanovic at right full-back. Essentially it became a 4-1-3-1 formation with the midfield trio having heavy defensive duties. Just when they were trying to figure themselves out, Iniesta doubled the lead and Chelsea’s hopes were drowning. Ramires was tracking back quite frequently, and just before the break, he found himself at the end of a Lampard through ball and chipped it over Valdes to give Chelsea an away goal advantage.
In 45 minutes, Barcelona scored twice but somehow at the end of it found themselves right where they started. Los Cules were desperate for a goal and came out in the second half with real vigour. Chelsea came out just hoping to hang on to the away goal and not let another one through. Within 4 minutes of the restart, Drogba conceded a penalty and Messi stepped up to the spot. Cech went low, and Messi went high, high enough to hit the crossbar. Kalou replaced Mata and former Atletico Madrid youngster, Fernando Torres was brought on for Drogba. Dani Alves, Christian Tello and Seydou Keita were brought on to grab that goal that they needed, and they came pretty close. Sanchez slotted one in but was ruled offside. Messi hit the post after beating Cech with a left-foot curler. Into three minutes of stoppage time, a faint shout for handball against Ashley Cole was heard but Cole punted the ball forward with Torres waiting as the farthest man ahead. He took the ball in his stride, beat Valdes in a one on one and passed the ball into the net. Against all the odds, Chelsea had come out victorious at the Camp Nou and knocked the defending Champions. Scenes of jubilation ensued. Roberto Di Matteo had done the unthinkable.
Now that they had made it to the Champions League Final, the next thing on the agenda was to qualify for next season’s group stages as well. Chelsea were on 6th on the table with Newcastle and Spurs above them. Torres continued his splendid form with a hattrick at the Bridge against QPR in a 6-1 win, Di Matteo’s biggest win yet. Chelsea then hosted Newcastle at home before facing Liverpool at Wembley for the FA Cup Final. Di Matteo rested the senior players even though it was a crucial fixture, a win would take Chelsea up to 5th place within reach of the Champions League spots. But unfortunately a goal in either half from Papiss Cisse helped Newcastle stay above Chelsea on the table and also end Chelsea’s 11-game unbeaten run across all competitions.
But with no time to assess the damage in the league, Chelsea faced Liverpool in the FA Cup Final. The Blues started the game defensively and Ramires drew first blood in classic Chelsea counter-attacking fashion. Drogba doubled the lead later in the second half to push Chelsea into a comfortable zone. Andy Carroll pulled one back and almost bagged a brace, if not for Cech’s point-blank save. Soon enough the final whistle blew and the Chelsea fans in the stadium erupted in unison. Di Matteo had led his team to an FA Cup triumph in his first attempt.
19th May 2012, Allianz Arena, München
All eyes were now transfixed on the big prize. The blues had come painfully close in 2008. Another heartbreak in the final hurdle would be difficult to take. The mighty Bayern Munich along with a boisterous home support stood in their way. One of the surprising names Di Matteo put on the team sheet for the final was 21-year old Ryan Bertrand, an orthodox left full-back, playing on the left-wing. This will probably go down as the gutsiest managerial decision ever, to hand a 21-year old his Champions League debut in the Champions League Final. Malouda was available for selection but since having played both the previous PL fixtures was left on the bench. Drogba started the game and Torres was named on the bench. Roman Abromovich looked on at his team both proud and anxious as the Champions League anthem echoed in the background.
Immediately after kickoff, the Bavarians looked a little off shape with Schweinsteiger getting booked for a handball. Unfortunately, that’s the only thing that they did wrong as they dominated play across both halves. Chelsea held the line, defended well and attacked on the counter. Bayern had chances galore and missed a couple of sitters. Arjen Robben came close but Cech parried it on to the post. Robben exploited Bertrand on the right making numerous piercing runs. Right when the game was looking to go into extra time, Muller awkwardly headed in off of a Toni Kroos cross, to send the hosts ahead 1-0 with 6 minutes left on the clock. Di Matteo jumped up and brought on Torres immediately to help out in attack. In the 88th minute, Bayern conceded their first corner of the game, and that was what the doctor ordered for the Blues. Juan Mata curled one onto the near post, and Didier Drogba headed right under the crossbar to equalize. Drogba had come clutch once again.
Robben had the chance to bur the game from the penalty spot in extra time, but Petr Cech was having none of that. He dived low to his left and stopped Robben’s spot-kick. Cech was on a mission to deny the Bavarians the crown.
Eventually, the game was to be decided on penalties. Right on cue, Didier Drogba, with his final kick of his first spell at Chelsea sent Neuer the wrong way, to beat Bayern Munich in their own backyard. Chelsea were finally European Champions. When they were two goals down at Camp Nou in the first half, nobody had given them a chance. They rallied their troops to come back from that predicament. Once again, when Muller headed home with a few minutes left on the clock, they refused to give in. Their never say die attitude pushed them on when their backs were against the wall.
Chelsea would’ve celebrated just anyone guiding them to a Champions League title, but the fact that it was a former Blue who did it made it all the more special. Di Matteo may not go down as the best Chelsea Manager, but he will go down as the manager who gave fans some of the best memories. Also, having won the Champions League, Chelsea automatically qualified for next season’s Champions League group stages despite finishing 6th. They replaced 4th place Tottenham and pushed Spurs into the Europa League, and that was the cherry on top to a fantastic season.
Written by Shakhti Vel | Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images