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May 5, 2012

Di Matteo makes his mark

As the blue confetti flew around Wembley, as an exuberant John Obi Mikel rugby-tackled Salomon Kalou, as a jubilant John Terry drank champagne from the FA Cup and, ever the showman, Didier Drogba posed for the cameras with a knowing insouciance, Roberto Di Matteo attempted to retain his characteristic calm.

Until he was hoisted and thrown into the air by his players, he succeeded. Except in the immediate aftermath of the most improbable of victories over Barcelona, Di Matteo prefers the understated approach. He is a man who appears quietly amused by the world around him. And yet, rather than being the detached bystander he can seem, he is changing Chelsea. Not so much by winning the FA Cup - this is the happiest of habits, with four triumphs in six years, each with Didier Drogba on the scoresheet but a different manager in the dugout - but by reviving a club in the midst of a messy civil war two months ago.

This is where comparisons with the previous interim coach to guide Chelsea to a Champions League final, Avram Grant, fall down. The Israeli inherited a team that ran on autopilot; Di Matteo was bequeathed one that was in a state of disrepair.

But by encouraging and alternating, he has transformed them. Victory at Wembley may have been secured by the finest of margins - Andy Carroll's header appeared a matter of millimetres from crossing the line - but it had Di Matteo's mark on it.

Management is about many things but, whether team talks, training or tactics, it is about judgement. The Italian's has been impeccable, as Chelsea's goals illustrated. Every participant in both strikes owed something to Di Matteo. They have been recalled, relocated and rejuvenated by him. They have responded to him.

First Juan Mata, moved from the left wing into a central playmaking role by Di Matteo, guided a pass past Jose Enrique for the rampaging Ramires, moved from the middle to the right. The Brazilian is banned for the Champions League final; he has already had his Roy Keane moment, scoring in the Nou Camp a matter of minutes after collecting the costly caution. This was his Paul Scholes moment, the FA Cup final goal of a man deprived of a bigger stage.

For the second, Mikel and Frank Lampard, two who fell out of favour with Andre Villas-Boas, combined before, with the old guard in perfect harmony, the latter picked out Drogba to drill his shot past Pepe Reina. As he was against Barcelona, Drogba remains a Chelsea manager's go-to guy on the major occasion. Or, at least, he does if he respects the manager in question and Di Matteo has earned the Ivorian's approval. So, too, that of the other Chelsea pensioners. The axis of Lampard and Drogba, the scorers last time the Londoners faced Liverpudlian opponents in an FA Cup final, remains intact, no matter how often an era without either is mooted.

But Di Matteo's success means that, as they often do, Chelsea have postponed the future. They are a club consumed by the present. The revolution has been put on hold by a group of players seizing their last opportunity. Ageing legs tired in the final half hour, when Liverpool launched an onslaught, but none are busier right now, none playing for a greater prize.

While denying Liverpool a cup double, Chelsea hope for two trophies of their own. Some 26 years ago, they were the vanquished side on the day the Merseysiders capped Kenny Dalglish's first season in charge by securing the Division One title (the FA Cup was to follow later). It provided one of the abiding images of the Scot's career, the player-manager-cum-scorer sitting with a smile born of exhaustion and exhilaration in the Stamford Bridge dressing room. When the final whistle went, he offered another impression; older, obviously, but shaken and saddened, a man struggling to deal with his disappointment. He seemed to be looking back in sadness.

Management is about decision-making and Dalglish made the game-changing substitution. The introduction of Carroll may not quite have turned his team from insipid to inspired, but it came close. Liverpool threatened little without their premier Drogba impressionist and a lot after his introduction. And yet, in its own way, that invited criticism: why did he not start?

The answer, perhaps, lay in a cautious approach. A counter-attacking gameplan had served Liverpool well against Chelsea during Dalglish's second reign; here, however, there was little threat on the break.

The principle of safety in numbers may have been dictated by the personnel available: Steven Gerrard apart, it was not a distinguished midfield. Too many lack the quality of their Chelsea counterparts, whether the invention of Mata, the dynamism of Ramires or the goalscoring habit of Lampard. It may have provided food for thought for the watching owner John W Henry, the man who authorised the £20 million move for Stewart Downing and the £16 million signing of Jordan Henderson.

With piercing honesty, Gerrard had said Liverpool's season would be analysed after - and, in effect, on the basis of - the FA Cup final. With endearing but misplaced modesty, Dalglish had said that his debt to Liverpool is too great for him ever to fully repay it. Now iconic club, legendary player and manager face a decision: what more do they have to give each other?

Follow Richard Jolly on Twitter @RichJolly

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