When Roman Abramovich finally got his hands on the European Cup, after pursuing it with obsessive zeal since 2003, he might reasonably have been expected to bear-hug the manager who delivered it. Instead, as the euphoria coursed through Chelsea veins in the wake of the penalty shootout triumph over Bayern Munich, he composed himself and drew back slightly from Roberto Di Matteo. The handshake and congratulation for Di Matteo was formal and polite. It was also stilted and painfully awkward.
It was easy to jump to a couple of conclusions and the events of the past week or so have reinforced them. The first was that Abramovich was not exactly falling over himself to salute Di Matteo for his part in arguably the club’s finest achievement and to thrust a permanent contract in front of him. It remains one of the greatest curiosities of a tumultuous season that Di Matteo continues to bear the title of Champions League?winning interim coach.
The second, which was closely related, was that Chelsea’s owner had not lavished a chunk of his fortune to watch his plaything perform as it had done, digging in obdurately to frustrate Barcelona in the semi-finals and then Bayern, and riding its luck in white-knuckle fashion along the way. This was not how Abramovich had pictured conquering Europe, even as recently as the start of the season, when he had hired the dynamic young coach André Villas?Boas to instil a swashbuckling brand of passing and pressing football.
Di Matteo’s victory might conceivably have presented Abramovich with the most embarrassing decision of his Chelsea stewardship, even if billionaires are not known to possess the skin to appreciate such positions. Abramovich wants Pep Guardiola as his next manager, although the former Barcelona coach is expected to prove out of his reach in the coming months.
Guardiola said last Friday before his final match in charge of Barcelona – the Copa del Rey final win against Athletic Bilbao – that he needed “months” to recharge. As things stand, Abramovich has a manager in name only and even then, it is a bit of a stretch. Di Matteo spent the weekend in Barbados, nominally at a legends football tournament but playing a lot of golf with his Chelsea friends Gianfranco Zola, Gus Poyet and Carlo Cudicini.
Di Matteo’s phone was pressed to his ear a good deal and he refused all requests to speak about his future. He remains in the dark. From Barbados he was scheduled to fly to Miami for a holiday. If Abramovich were to turn to Di Matteo for next season, it would feel as though he had done so by default. Yet key decisions regarding the squad continue to be taken at Stamford Bridge. Last Wednesday the club’s chief executive, Ron Gourlay, said Fernando Torres would be the team’s focal point up front.
With Didier Drogba having followed Nicolas Anelka out of the club as a free agent, Torres, whose £50m signing Abramovich championed in January of last year, had received a significant vote of confidence. It has now emerged that Chelsea are primed to assert themselves powerfully on the transfer market, most eye-catchingly, with the £32m play for Lille’s 21-year-old playmaker Eden Hazard.
The Porto striker Hulk, who could operate on the right and so complement rather than supplant Torres, is the other principal target. It is a stunning declaration of Abramovich’s intent on more than one level. Whoever manages the team, he wants it to be built around Hazard, who is arguably the most exciting young creative talent in Europe and whose next career decision has been the most heavily trailed, certainly by the man himself.
Abramovich wants Hazard’s mystique, his fantasy. He wants more entertainment from a rejuvenated team. The notion of Hulk, Hazard and Juan Mata in support of Torres is mouth-watering. Moreover, the move is evidence of him flexing his financial muscle in the face of Manchester City, the club that nobody is supposed to be able to outbid. City wanted Hazard, as did Manchester United, while Arsenal were also credited with an interest; Hazard took in a game at the Emirates in the middle of last season and he liked what he saw.
But Chelsea’s barging to the front of the queue is evocative of an older order of things. Chelsea are understood to be close to announcing break-even financial results, thanks to Drogba’s decisive penalty in the shootout against Bayern, which club insiders say could be worth as much as £100m. With Financial Fair Play approaching, the Champions League success has provided wriggle room. Abramovich wants his team to dance to a funkier beat.