Chelsea: What Would Have Happened This Season Had Di Matteo Not Been Fired?
In his 1992 novel Fatherland, Robert Harris imagined a world where the Nazis won World War II. It painted a bleak image of a life that, for many, is too grim to even imagine, let alone write.
It is not on the same emotional scale, but Chelsea fans have found themselves doing the same this season, imagining their campaign had Roberto Di Matteo not been fired in November.
The Italian's name can still be heard from the Stamford Bridge terraces as Blues fans picture what might have been had he remained at the helm.
Indeed, Di Matteo was already a hero on account of his exploits as a player for Chelsea, long before he lifted the FA Cup and Champions League as manager. It was an impressive start to his career in the Stamford Bridge dugout, but six months on things started to go awry as his team suffered a loss form that resulted in him being fired.
With this in mind, Bleacher Report considers where Chelsea could have been with Di Matteo still in charge as we approach the closing stages of 2012-13.
Di Matteo inspired the Blues to lift the Champions Leagfue last term
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Chelsea may have been the defending champions of the Champions League this season, but following a poor showing in the group stages—with or without Roberto Di Matteo—they were heading out of the competition this season.
They threw a two-goal lead away on Matchday 1 against Juve at Stamford Bridge and from there on—with away trips to Ukraine and Italy to contend with—it looked like being a tough defence of their title.
It was the 3-0 loss to the Old Lady on Matchday 5 that saw Di Matteo lose his job and with the result leaving Chelsea third in their group, it meant they would be counting on results elsewhere to go through.
As it transpired, Rafa Benitez was in charge for their final game of the group stage, but although the Blues defeated Nordsjaelland 6-1, it wasn't enough to see them through.
The Spaniard had held up his end of the deal, but with Shakhtar failing to defeat Juventus, the Blues crashed out.
Verdict with Di Matteo: Eliminated at the group stage
Capital One Cup
Chelsea lost out to Swansea City in the Capital One Cup semifinal.
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Di Matteo seemed to have the Blues flowing in the competition, but it would be harsh to lay the blame for their elimination at the door of Benitez.
What proved Chelsea's undoing against Swansea was two uncharacteristic mistakes from Branislav Ivanovic in the first leg of the semifinal—something even Di Matteo couldn't have guarded against.
It left them with an uphill task two weeks later at the Liberty Stadium, with the return finishing 0-0. It was a rather drab affair that night, but before leveling criticism at the Blues and Benitez's tactics, one must also applaud the Swans for their performance in snuffing out their attacking threat.
Verdict with Di Matteo: Semi finalists
Chelsea players celebrate their comeback against Manchester United in the FA Cup.
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Chants of "You don't know what you're doing" rang from the away end of Old Trafford when Rafa Benitez brought on Eden Hazard and John Mikel Obi for Frank Lampard and Victor Moses in the recent FA Cup clash with Manchester United.
The Blues were trailing 2-0 in the quarterfinal, but despite the protests from Chelsea fans, the Spaniard's substitutions changed the game. Hazard scored their first—with Ramires later adding a second—while Mikel performed excellently in the middle of the park to help Chelsea take a grip on proceedings.
It was a tactical move from Benitez that kept the Blues alive in the FA Cup and with the replay coming at Stamford Bridge on April 1, they have another crack at the whip to secure a semifinal berth.
The draw hadn't even made for the FA Cup when Roberto Di Matteo was fired, but one suspects the Blues would have enjoyed a similar cup run with him in charge. After all, he won the competition twice as a player and also as Chelsea manager last season.
If they overcome United in the replay, Chelsea will face Manchester City in the semis, so a place in the final is by no means guaranteed.
Verdict with Di Matteo: Semis
Club World Cup
Chelsea know they missed a big chance to be crowned "world champions" against Corinthians.
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Rafael Benitez has been the target of some harsh criticism during his short time at Chelsea. Much of it has been unwarranted, but his tactics in the Club World Cup final were found wanting somewhat.
The Spaniard has often been questioned for what is perceived a negative approach to matches—containing the opposition rather than intending to win.
Against Corinthians in Japan, the Blues lacked any sort of panache or adventure in attack and Benitez's late changes in the game had little impact. For instance, Oscar was given just 18 minutes to make an impact, while Cesar Azpilicueta replaced fellow defender Branislav Ivanovic as the Blues chased the game.
Roberto Di Matteo showed in the FA Cup final and Champions League last term that he had the nous to win major finals. But while he did it with a touch of negativity himself, with Eden Hazard and Oscar among his ranks, one suspects he would have used them more effectively than Benitez.
Di Matteo was doing just that earlier this season as the Blues threatened to run away with the Premier League title early on, only to be reined in by Manchester United.
In a one-off situation, given all that we had seen from his Chelsea team, it's not hard to imagine they would have done enough to defeat a poor Corinthians outfit, too.
Verdict with Di Matteo: Winners
Chelsea beat Steaua Bucharest to progress to the Europa League quarterfinal.
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Similar to the FA Cup, Chelsea were not yet in the Europa League before Roberto Di Matteo was fired.
That said, Rafa Benitez has performed well enough himself not to consider where the Blues would be with Di Matteo.
Admittedly, their form has been a little patchy en route to reaching the quarterfinal, but they have shown enough character to get through the odd bad performance and progress.
It's easy to point the finger, but the main concern for Chelsea is their continued progress in the competition and Benitez is helping them on their way.
Would it be prettier under Di Matteo? Nobody truly knows.
Verdict under Di Matteo: Quarterfinals
Eden Hazard celebrates his strike against West Ham last weekend.
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Chelsea's Premier League form had been suffering ahead of Di Matteo being fired, but it's difficult to imagine the Blues would be this far off the pace had he remained.
They hadn't won a Premier League game since Oct. 20 when he was fired in late November, although it was a run that also saw them lose just twice in the league.
Given all that Chelsea had achieved earlier in the campaign, it was a period that could be attributed to a natural slump, although Chelsea's power brokers saw otherwise and dismissed the manager.
With a struggling team having to adjust to a new manager in Rafa Benitez—who was greeted by a chorus of boos during his first game in charge—the situation was made all the more difficult.
It has taken them some time to rediscover their feet, but Chelsea now look a solid unit once more.
Had Di Matteo remained, with his knowledge of the team, that may have happened sooner. While they sit four points behind Manchester City in the table right now, a runners-up spot isn't a realistic prospect.
It's not to be deemed that Benitez is inept, either. The Spaniard has adopted a team mid-season and without the luxury of spending time with them on the training field has had to gradually mould them into his own vision.
Now we're beginning to see the fruits of his labor.
Verdict with Di Matteo: Premier League runner-up