Roberto Di Matteo has targeted restoring Chelsea as Premier League title contenders next season after the Italian was rewarded for claiming London's first European Cup last month by securing the manager's job on a full-time basis.
Di Matteo, who returned from a family holiday in the United States on Wednesday, has signed a two-year contract believed to be worth around £3m a season. The deal contains a break clause after 12 months, a policy apparently considered standard practice at the club but which carries extra significance given that Pep Guardiola, the former Barcelona head coach who has long been considered Roman Abramovich's first choice, intends to return to football after a sabbatical next summer.
The Chelsea chief executive, Ron Gourlay, claimed Di Matteo was "the clear choice" to take over, yet the club are sure to monitor Guardiola's situation over the next year. Regardless, Di Matteo, who had been contacted by the likes of Lazio and Aston Villa, has earned himself the opportunity to oversee the next stage in this team's development.
His staggering achievement in restoring confidence and winning the European Cup, as well as the FA Cup, in an 11-week stint as interim first-team coach last term masked the reality that the club finished in sixth place, their worst position under Abramovich's ownership, and a distant 25 points from the Premier League's summit.
That chasm was deemed unsatisfactory by the hierarchy and although a strong defence of the European Cup will also be a prerequisite, Di Matteo's immediate task will be to ensure the team challenge more coherently for the domestic title. "We certainly want to do better in the league," he said. "Last season was a difficult one and we want to bridge that gap between us and the two Manchester teams and, obviously, continue to do well in the cup competitions.
"I had a wonderful break with my family, it was very enjoyable, but now the work starts. I have to start planning for pre-season. We've lost a few players who are out of contract and we've already signed a couple of players, so there will be a slight change, but there won't be a complete overhaul of the squad. We will try to make the right signings for the functionality of the squad."
Chelsea's recruitment department, led by the technical director, Michael Emenalo, have moved to add the much coveted Eden Hazard from Lille for £32m and Marko Marin from Werder Bremen for £7m, counterbalancing the loss of Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou and José Bosingwa, who have left under freedom of contract. Further movement is expected in and out of the club, with Michael Essien and Florent Malouda effectively available for transfer and strong interest retained in the Porto forward Hulk.
A right-back will also join, with Lille's Mathieu Debuchy – impressing with France at Euro 2012 – and César Azpilicueta of Marseille under consideration. There is tentative interest, too, in the Newcastle winger Hatem Ben Arfa. The playing staff are due to start returning for pre-season training at Cobham from 4 July, with the squad travelling to Seattle for a two-week tour on 14 July, by which time Di Matteo would hope to have his new recruits integrated into the club.
The Italian had been vigorously and publicly backed by the club's players following his success upon taking up the reins from the sacked Andre Villas-Boas in early March. While the job he has now secured appears very different – last term was more about short-term crisis management – there is confidence in the set-up that he can implement a more fluid, attacking style of play and oversee tweaks to the squad while maintaining the levels of communication, diplomacy and tactical awareness that marked him out last term.
"Roberto's quality was clear for all to see when he galvanised the squad last season and helped the club make history, and the owner and board are very pleased he will be continuing his good work," said Gourlay. "We all believed he was a young coach with much to offer when we first asked him to take charge of team affairs in March, and the manner in which he worked with us, the players and all the staff, and the success that followed, made him the clear choice when it came to selecting the person to take us forward in the seasons to come.
"Although he has set the bar very high in the short time he has been in charge, we know that Roberto is the right man to lead Chelsea onto further success." Eddie Newton is also expected to remain as Di Matteo's No2.
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image: © Jason Bagley