Roman Abramovich sent yet another manager on his way from Chelsea’s Cobham training ground this week, just 6 months after Roberto Di Matteo secured the Champions League for the first time in Chelsea’s history, and collected an FA Cup as well for good measure. The ruthless dismissal is in keeping with a man who has now overseen nine managers in his nine-year ownership of the club.
Di Matteo’s sacking is perhaps not surprising when considered in context. When he took over the reins from Andre Villas Boas in early March, his official job title was “interim first team coach”. It was expected that Di Matteo would stabilise results until a more experienced manager could be brought in at the end of the season. At least, that was the plan until a resurgent Chelsea went on to win the cup double. Even after such heroics, it took a full month for him to be awarded the job on a full time basis. There was even an option included for either party to walk away after a year.
A certain Pep Guardiola is casting a long shadow all the way from New York in his sabbatical year. The ex-Barcelona man is still believed to be Abramovich’s preferred long-term option, although it’s open to debate what ‘long-term’ actually means to the Russian oil man.
For now though, Chelsea will have to make do with another Spaniard: Rafa Benitez. The former Liverpool boss was appointed barely two days after it was announced Di Matteo would be leaving, suggesting that negotiations were perhaps initiated before the sacking. Still, Benitez admitted in his first press conference as manager that he hadn’t even directly spoken to Abramovich yet.
Whatever the circumstances of his appointment, Chelsea fans should expect to see an upturn in form for a team that last won a league game more than a month ago. In sharp contrast to his ill-fated spell at Inter Milan, Benitez inherits a team in the midst of a sharp dip in form, and his earlier successes at both Valencia and Liverpool have proven his pedigree.
Whilst we could forever debate the injustice of firing Di Matteo, it is unquestionable that Benitez’s arrival will spell an even more colourful Premier league season. Benitez left the league in 2010 a controversial figure with a sense of dissatisfaction (to put it mildly) at the way his Liverpool tenure had ended. He returns a man supremely determined to “win trophies”, and while he asserted that he has already “won everything you can win as a club manager”, he will be desperate to finally lay his hands on the Premier League trophy.
His appointment is interesting for three reasons. First, he will be tasked with reinvigorating a stalling Fernando Torres. The £50 million striker still has the faith of Abramovich and enjoyed the best part of his career under Benitez at Liverpool. If Benitez can find a way to replicate this even in part, the results will be tremendous. Other title contenders must surely shudder at the thought of an in-form Torres being fed chance after chance by the magical trio of Mata, Hazard and Oscar. Whether or not that happens will make for a fascinating sub-plot for the season.
Second, the arrival of Benitez ensures that his bitter rivalry with Sir Alex Ferguson will reemerge. It is impossible to forget the mind games employed by Ferguson that led to the Spaniard’s famous diatribe of “facts”. Ferguson is already relishing the chance of taking him on again, and has wasted no time in voicing his opinion on the matter. He has landed the first punch in their reunion by commenting that Benitez is “lucky” to have landed the Chelsea job at this time, with the Club World Cup on the near horizon. Ferguson bemoans the fact that he could have two worldwide trophies to his name (the other with Inter) and yet have “nothing to do with the construction of the teams”. The wider jibe is clear: this is not your team and winning trophies with it won’t prove anything.
Finally, Chelsea fans themselves are less than keen on their new manager. At Liverpool, Benitez presided over two ill-tempered Champions League semi-finals in 2005 and 2007, even insulting the Chelsea fans with taunts that his own team “do not need to give away flags for our fans to wave”. While he questioned their passion for the club then, the response to his appointment surely dispels its legitimacy. Some fans have even “threatened to rip up their season tickets in protest”. Benitez’s home debut will be a tense affair. Then again, win a few games and all could soon be forgotten.