Very few people seemed to be in doubt that when Roman Abramovich fired Roberto Di Matteo in November, he had in fact made one of his most embarrassing decisions as Chelsea owner yet. Supporters were quick to air their distaste, through protests that still continue today despite recent good form and scorelines of 6-1, 1-5 and 8-0 in Chelsea’s favour. Regardless of how much fans protest however, there seems no way back for Di Matteo, and we must look to the future – under Benitez as Interim Manager and then beyond in the never-ending tale of the Chelsea Manager….
Upon firing Di Matteo, Abramovich appointed Chelsea’s fourth interim manager in the shape of Rafael Benitez. The previous three – Avram Grant, Guus Hiddink and Roberto Di Matteo – had all experienced different fates during their times in charge. Despite being within a John Terry penalty slip of Champions League glory, Avram Grant led Chelsea to their first trophy-less season of the Abramovich era and was abruptly dismissed without the CV to succeed Mourinho. Guus Hiddink was appointed after an uninspiring stint by former World Cup-winning manager Luis Felipe Scolari in 2009, and whilst Hiddink guided Chelsea to an FA Cup win and what many would describe as an unjust Champions League semi-final exit, landing the full-time role would prove unviable due to international commitments.
The impression of Hiddink on Abramovich during his short tenure, as well as the nature of his successor gave a good impression of the type of manager the Russian billionaire is attracted to, and would be willing to back when Benitez’s stint as interim manager comes to an end. Both Hiddink and successor Carlo Ancelotti had proven track records, and both proved to be a success during their time at Chelsea. The failure of Andre Villas Boas and Roberto Di Matteo to impress Abramovich has caused the Chelsea owner to revert to experience in the shape of Benitez, and this appointment reflects Abramovich’s desire to find a tactical genius. Benitez met Ancelotti in two Champions League Finals in the space of three years, both claiming one title each, and this gives proof that Benitez’s abilities as a manager correspond with Abramovich’s desires.
The hesitation surrounding appointing Roberto Di Matteo full-time in the summer indicated that Roman Abramovich was not entirely happy with the nature of Chelsea’s Champions League win, despite it being the prize he had craved since buying the club in 2004. Through the competition Chelsea become renowned for a defensive approach, playing not to lose rather than to win, and win convincingly. A result of the Champions League victory was that Abramovich had little choice but to appoint Di Matteo full-time, and this offer appeared to be reluctant, a hesitation that did not quite suit the will of the Chelsea fans. It was a delayed approach for a manager who had just won the Champions League and the length of the contract offered was noticeably shorter. Instead, the Chelsea owner seemed keen on pursuing more stylish football, something not envisaged under Di Matteo, and this culminated in November with his firing.
The infatuation with stylish football at Chelsea has led to links between former Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola and Stamford Bridge. The keen interest in the fate of Guardiola since leaving Barca has been no secret and this may have led to the decision of appointing another interim manager rather than filling the role with a full-time candidate. Guardiola left Barcelona expressing his desire to take a break from football and such a sudden reappointment would not have been likely. Whilst it is clear that Rafael Benitez must win some silverware to have any chance of maintaining his position in charge, it is possible that Chelsea will regardless make an approach for Guardiola come end of the season.
In this, Chelsea may encounter a big problem: Something that may detract Guardiola is the track record of managers at Stamford Bridge. World Cup and European Championship-winning manager Luis Felipe Scolari was sacked after little more than six months in charge, and despite Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea breaking a Premier League record by being the team to score most goals in a season (103) he was dismissed after his second year in charge. This may end up falling in Benitez’s favour, as Chelsea may need to prove they can maintain a manager for more than a couple years in order to attract Guardiola.
Benitez has got Torres firing again, something that three managers previous had failed to do, and performances are beginning to resemble those of the 2009-10 season, when Chelsea netted seven or more goals on four separate occasions. This would suggest there is potential for Benitez to be a rare success at Chelsea, with initial low expectations falling in his favour.
I think it is highly likely however that Chelsea will pursue Guardiola, and pay a fortune in the process. Whether he will want to come is a difficult question to overcome, and whether he will please Abramovich is not easy to predict.