Benítez lands in Chelsea hotseat

Former Valencia, Liverpool and Inter boss replaces Champions League winner Di Matteo

Roberto Di Matteo overseeing his last match as Chelsea manager, a 3-0 loss to Juventus.
Roberto Di Matteo overseeing his last match as Chelsea manager, a 3-0 loss to Juventus.GIUSEPPE CACACE (AFP)

The vultures had been gathering over the fertile scavengers' ground of Stamford Bridge for some weeks, awaiting the fall of Roman Abramovich's well-used ax. On Tuesday night, as his Chelsea side inched closer to the Champions League exit door after a 3-0 loss at Juventus, the Russian billionaire sacked Roberto di Matteo as coach, 262 days after he replaced Andre Villas-Boas in the Premier League's hottest managerial seat.

Former Liverpool boss Rafa Benítez had reportedly been installed as new Chelsea's new coach by Wednesday afternoon.

In Di Matteo's brief stint, the Italian delivered Abramovich's Holy Grail: the Champions League title. When Di Matteo took over Chelsea was in disarray and facing elimination at the hands of Napoli in the last 16. Faced with overturning a 3-1 deficit, Di Matteo engineered a famous victory, sealed by Branislav Ivanovic in extra time. Benfica fell next, then mighty Barcelona was outfoxed over two legs, sending Chelsea through to the final against Bayern Munich. On a dramatic night in Munich, Didier Drogba equalized on 88 minutes and then stroked home the final kick of the game to seal a penalty shoot-out victory.

Abramovich, though, is a hard taskmaster; two wins in his last eight games in charge was enough to wipe the credit Di Matteo had banked during a glittering end to the previous term that also returned the FA Cup to West London. If Chelsea is eliminated from Europe's top table — and its fate is not entirely in its own hands — it will be the first time the holder has fallen at the group stage.

"The team's recent performances and results have not been good enough and the owner and board felt a change was necessary now to keep the club moving in the right direction as we head into a vitally important part of the season," the club said on its website.

Chelsea has made no attempt to hide its desire to lure Pep Guardiola from his sabbatical in New York but the former Barcelona coach has made plain his intention to shun the dugout until at least next summer. Chelsea, therefore, needs a short-term fix and has banked on Benítez, who had been left to tend to his goatee since being sacked by Inter in December 2010. The Spaniard will oversee first team affairs until the end of the season.

That appointment makes Abramovich's courting of the Spaniard rather curious; Benítez lasted four months at Inter and left the reigning European and Serie A champion in tatters, claiming that if no new signings were made he could not do much about the team's poor form. Massimo Moratti was far from impressed and ushered Benítez to the airport.

There may, though, be an element of method in the Russian's thinking; Abramovich bankrolled the signing of Fernando Torres from Liverpool, a move that has failed to reap much dividend since. Under Benítez at Anfield Torres was among the finest players in the league. Presumably Abramovich feels that Benítez may be able to reignite the Spanish striker's spark.

Neither should Benítez be judged purely on the Inter débâcle. He led Valencia to back-to-back Champions League finals and repeated the trick with Liverpool, winning the competition in 2005. However, Benítez's fractious relationship with the board and senior members of the squad at Anfield hardly bodes well for his impact at a club with a very hands-on owner and the likes of John Terry and Frank Lampard to placate.

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