When Roberto di Matteo replaced Andre Villas-Boas many, this commentator included, assumed that Roman Abramovich was admitting the defeat of his latest ‘project' of rejuvenation. We were right. When, though, we suggested that this would also entail the writing off of this season's actual projects (League, FA Cup and Champions League), we were wrong.
When RDM assumed AVB's role after Chelsea's acronymious managerial reshuffle, it seemed inevitable that he would do so only as a stopgap (an especially apt term, given the way the club was leaking goals, points and, apparently, players). Now though, with a cup final appearance already banked and the marquee-iest of marquee ties to come against Barcelona on Wednesday night, di Matteo's job looks a mite less temporary. For the record, I still think that (rather like the perpetually unemployed victims of the government's Workshare scheme) he'll move on in the summer. Again like Britain's perpetually unemployed, he will hope to do so with enhanced prospects (he will definitely do so, and this shatters the comparison, with enhanced personal wealth). I am not sure, though, that this is the case.
The trouble with taking a temporary position is just that. It is temprorary. Whether volunteering for a multinational or taking an ‘interim' position on what is already one of football's hottest (and therefore difficult to sit on for any length of time) benches, any success achieved therein are mitigated by the limitations that temporary status confers on a role. It is easier, as we all know, to work hard at something with an agreed endpoint and di Matteo took the Chelsea job for a predetermined, finite time period. Stripped of the obligation of rejuvenation which ultimately did for his predecessor (and former boss), the svelte Italian has been liberated by his interim status to perform a similarly liberating role for his players. He can grant them the autonomy, under which they have flourished, that was never available to Andre Villas-Boas because, unlike the Portuguese, di Matteo has no long term prospects to consider. Whereas AVB had, always, to think AD (after Drogba), RDM has no concern whatsoever with the future: it simply isn't his job.
Chelsea have flourished in similar circumstances, under Avram Grant and Guus Hiddink, before this and this is perhaps an inevitable consequence of a club's having such a concentration of powerful and experienced players. But this recurring coincidence should not be taken for a desirable course.
The fact is that Chelsea need a permanent manager with the remit and the impetus to rebuild an ageing squad. Di Matteo could be that man, but he has done nothing so far (even in far exceeding all reasonable expectation) to support this.
Evidence of this will exist, tonight, in the away technical area. Bestridden by another young and handsome former midfield great, Barcelona are an object lesson for how a former player should prepare himself for leadership of a great club. Whereas di Matteo was simply the guy who happened to be free when the job came up (and of these guys, he wasn't even the first choice, Rafa Benitez having already rejected a contract till the end of the season), Pep Guardiola became Barcelona coach after an almost spiritual education that took him into deepest South America in search of Marcelo Bielsa and required him to serve an apprenticeship in charge of the B-team.
Guardiola's entire post-playing football career (some say his whole career) has been directed towards the fulfillment of the job he now occupies. Permanently.
This, ultimately, is the way that all employment should work: as a progression from education to apprenticeship to employment. And it is the ‘progression' that makes this model desirable. Whatever di Matteo ends up achieving this season, he will have achieved by temporarily arresting progress; whatever Guardiola achieves he will have achieved through permanent progress. And that is the ideal.
You can find more on Chelsea-Barcelona in our Chelsea vs. Barcelona, UEFA Champions League Semifinals StoryStream. For more on the two teams, head over to Chelsea FC blog We Ain't Got No History and FC Barcelona blog Barca Blaugranes.