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Apr 5, 2012

Di Matteo a man for all seasons?

As job interviews go, this should be progressing swimmingly. Roberto di Matteo has guided Chelsea into the semi-finals of the Champions League and the FA Cup as well as overseeing an improved run in the Premier League. His spell in the Stamford Bridge dugout has been brief, but his win percentage compares with Jose Mourinho and Guus Hiddink, rather than the underachievers Luiz Felipe Scolari and Andre Villas-Boas.

Yet this is not a job interview. Not yet, anyway, and not when the employer is Roman Abramovich. At most clubs, an assistant given interim charge and responding with results would propel himself into contention. Chelsea, however, aim to be an exception. A star-struck billionaire hopes to lure either Pep Guardiola or Mourinho to Stamford Bridge. In doing so, however, the line between optimism and unrealism has probably been crossed.

But if the world's two most coveted managers are discounted, the field to succeed the sacked Villas-Boas suddenly seems very open. Careful to deflect questions about his long-term ambitions, Di Matteo is obviously interested. His managerial CV is slim by Chelsea's standards, but he compensates with the popularity his playing past gives him and the success of his short-term stint in charge.

He has displayed decisiveness without making enemies and has made Chelsea more solid while supervising three wins where they have scored four or more goals. He has conjured probably season-best performances from both Didier Drogba and Fernando Torres, not to mention making the wild card David Luiz more reliable. He has harnessed the senior players and recalled forgotten figures like Salomon Kalou and Paulo Ferreira.

And he has successfully distanced himself from his former employer. Di Matteo has not been tarnished by his involvement in a failed regime. If anything, it is the opposite: he is benefiting in part from not being Villas-Boas. His time in London suggested the Portuguese is almost completely lacking in man-management skills. Di Matteo is both more empathetic and more sympathetic. His background gives him a different kind of credibility: never trumpeted as a managerial whiz-kid, a man with his pedigree as a player has more kudos with footballers whose credibility test can boil down to a simple case of "show us your medals".

Yet caretaker management is poles apart from permanent employment. Especially, perhaps, at Chelsea. Di Matteo has taken them back to basics, but this is a club with a pronounced need to look forward, not merely to find new personnel but a different ethos. It is easy to envisage how Villas-Boas' bold footballing blueprint could win Abramovich over - although the practical problems of implementing it were also predictable - but the Italian has to indicate that he, too, is a visionary who can shape Chelsea's future and deliver the style of play the owner expects.

And that necessitates a very different skill set. Having won over the dressing room, he would have to decide to dispose of some of his new-found allies. It is a task that requires delicate handling, so Di Matteo's diplomacy should count in his favour, because as Villas-Boas discovered, alienating the influential is not the cleverest of career moves. But if Drogba and Torres, Frank Lampard and John Terry, Ashley Cole and Petr Cech are required to get Di Matteo the job, their reward may come in the form of rejection.

It requires strength of character, an imposition of authority. A man some players refer to, in faintly patronising fashion, as "Robbie" has to convince he has the ruthlessness; friends are not renowned for wielding the axe.

The other area where Di Matteo appears untried is the transfer market. While West Bromwich Albion bought brilliantly during his time at The Hawthorns - and Peter Odemwingie was a particularly eye-catching triumph - sporting director Dan Ashworth was largely responsible for acquisitions. It is proof that a director of football, while often derided, can work in English football. But not, perhaps, at Chelsea, where nothing is that simple.

Abramovich's own input, no matter how generous, is not always helpful - think of Torres and Andriy Shevchenko - nor are those of his crowded court of advisors with their competing agendas. If any club needs a manager with strong views on who to recruit and how to construct a team, it is Chelsea.

And yet, given the differing and different demands of the job - both immediate and sustained success, high-quality football, an overhaul of the ageing squad, the ability to keep Abramovich and whoever has his ear happy - the reality is that no one ticks every box.

Di Matteo certainly does not yet. But as a popular figure who has transformed the team's fortunes, displayed tactical prowess and appeared unflustered by the pressure on him, he has enhanced his reputation.

While Abramovich continues to scour the world for a supposed messiah, the best available option may be quietly stating his case, if the owner cares to notice. Di Matteo should formulate a plan for change, on the off-chance three months at the helm can become three years, and Abramovich should grant him an audience. The chance to present his ideas is the least he deserves.

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