Roberto Di Matteo puts sentiment aside in Schalke’s bid to derail Chelsea

The Italian is reluctant to dwell upon a spell at Stamford Bridge that unravelled after winning the European Cup

Roberto Di Matteo looked uncomfortable when mention was made of Munich and what may prove to have been the greatest night of his coaching career. There was a pause and a hint of a smile, then a slight sigh and something akin to a shrug. “I don’t think about [it] much,” he offered. “People remind me, but I’m a person who looks to the future. The past is there for everybody to see, but I look forward. You can interpret that as you want.”

Even reminders of the celebrated Petr Cech penalty save or Didier Drogba’s late reward, or the drama of the shootout at the Allianz Arena, provoked little more than a flicker of fondness. He prickled briefly when reminded he had won European club football’s elite prize and still then been sacked – “You get right to the point, no?” – but otherwise the only emotion, sitting in a media hall at the Veltins Arena and clad in the colours of FC Schalke 04 on the eve of a reunion, was reserved for a rather fleeting summing-up of the greatest night in Chelsea’s history. “It was a great time, a highlight of a manager’s career. There were many special moments, not just that night, but running up to it as well …”

Di Matteo confronts the team he led to London’s first European Cup on Tuesdayjust six weeks into his first position since Roman Abramovich wielded the axe almost exactly two years ago. His spell in charge of Chelsea – initially as interim manager – amounted to 42 games, two major trophies, a slump in form and dismissal in the small hours of the morning with the Champions League holders about to become the first to see their defence choked at the group stage. History will remember his achievements, the club’s support cherishing his impact as player and coach. In hindsight, Di Matteo’s tenure as a permanent manager had effectively been doomed from the start.

Restored to the Premier League in 2011 as assistant to André Villas-Boas, the former MK Dons and West Bromwich Albion manager outlived the Portuguese at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea briefly considered recruiting from outside and held talks with Rafael Benítez, who was not willing to take up the reins on a short-term basis, but Di Matteo was well respected by that core of elite senior professionals – John Terry, Ashley Cole, Cech, Drogba, Frank Lampard – with whom Villas-Boas had failed to connect. The Italian could engage with them rather than merely instruct. At the time he seemed an almost medicinal choice; an interim to lift the mood.

The initial upturn in results justified the decision. Di Matteo had inherited a side in fifth place but slipping, and 3-1 down from the first leg of their Champions League knockout tie against Napoli. He won at Birmingham in an FA Cup replay in his first match, benefited from the injection of momentum when the Italians were thrashed 4-1 in the return, and lost only once – at the eventual champions, Manchester City – in his first 16 games in charge. There were those heady nights against Barcelona, and the dismissal of Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Cup semi-final. The fixture clutter eventually choked the team’s Premier League campaign, and the sixth-place finish was worryingly low, but the two showcase events – at Wembley and the Allianz Arena – bought the Italian credit.

If the FA Cup success felt almost old hat, the achievement in Munich, all rugged defiance and inspiration from Cech to Drogba against Bayern, defied belief. Chelsea had been denied a quartet of key players through suspension and still prevailed. “There aren’t many managers who have the chance to win it, so it’s a great achievement,” he said. “But the team was the most important aspect of it, and I was very happy for the team, the players and the club as well.”ven then, the hierarchy were unconvinced as to Di Matteo’s long-term credentials to oversee this team.There were concerns as to the interim’s tactical nous, the European run having been a study in pragmatism and heavily reliant upon the old guard. Abramovich’s priority was to lure Pep Guardiola to London, yet the Spaniard twice insisted he was intent upon a sabbatical. Chelsea delayed an announcement until Euro 2012 was well under way before confirming Di Matteo’s position, almost under the radar, on a two-year contract. He was being rewarded for Munich but the doubts still remained. The club wanted to see evidence he could grow into the role. In reality, they would never receive it.

The first inklings that they had made a mistake surfaced in pre-season when, with the likes of Eden Hazard and Oscar added to the ranks, the perception was that the squad and team lacked focus and clear structure. The Community Shield was lost to City and, while that would normally matter little, the board was troubled a fellow contender had been permitted to prevail. The Premier League campaign started promisingly enough, but the sporting director, Michael Emenalo, preached caution in his reports back to the owner. IIndividuals were excelling, the likes of Hazard illuminating the overall approach. The team, as a unit, were not functioning quite as convincingly.

Then came the humiliation of the Uefa Super Cup in Monaco, when Radamel Falcao and Atlético Madrid steamrollered the English. Even then the world seemed distracted on the night the transfer window closed, but Abramovich had not been hoodwinked. He sat in the dugout alongside Di Matteo post-match at Stade Louis II and not a word was spoken. Even a subsequent six-game winning streak failed to enhance the manager’s prospects. “That’s life,” reflected the Italian. “Time, in football, is very precious and you always want it. But we all know you can’t in modern football. You just have to live with that. Life goes on.”

Statistics alone make his dismissal feel surprising. The only defeats suffered by his side in the opening 13 matches of 2012-13 had been those City and Atlético, and even when the rot set in there were extenuating circumstances. Manchester United’s win at Stamford Bridge was secured against nine men and with Javier Hernández registering the winner from an offside position. It felt freakish. The weak defeat at West Brom was more revealing and left the hierarchy apoplectic. Abramovich had to be persuaded not to sack him in the immediate aftermath of the Hawthorns. There had been no evidence he could hoist them from the slump. From the outside, he appeared out of his depth.

The reprieve was brief. Fernando Torres was dropped at Juventus, a politically sensitive decision, and Di Matteo’s team were utterly overrun. He was a dead man walking through Turin airport that night, returning to Cobham to learn he was to be relieved of his duties at a little before 4am the following morning. Efforts to secure Benítez as the next interim were already under way by the time the 186-word statement confirming the worst was released on the club’s website. It was almost six months to the day since Munich.

The period since has been spent effectively on Chelsea’s payroll as his two-year contract ticked down, and seeking further education in the game to stand him in good stead for his return. “I have done a lot of things in that time, a lot of studying as well,” he added. “Watching a lot of football, enjoying my family life. I just had the feeling Schalke was the right move for me, a big challenge. Beating Chelsea would mean three points and a good position in the group. Nothing else. I have no sentiment for revenge. I enjoyed a wonderful time there with many people, and that’s it.”

Di Matteo’s managerial record at Chelsea

Played 42, Won 24, Drawn 9, Lost 9

Won FA Cup, Champions League