Di Matteo another victim of Chelsea's strange politics
The first intimation that something was amiss came in Roberto Di Matteo's late arrival for the press conference after Chelsea's 3-0 defeat to Juventus. Usually he arrives half an hour or so after the final whistle; this time it took him 75 minutes. He didn't seem particularly upset or resigned but it later emerged he'd told the players not to come in on Wednesday for their usual post-game warm-downs as he had "meetings" to attend. By 3am as he trudged through the south terminal of Gatwick airport, he was struggling to raise a smile for the small gaggle of fans seeking photographs.
Within six hours, the axe had formally fallen, confirmed with a 186-word statement on Chelsea's website. The club's communications department is well-practised in releasing such news: Di Matteo was the eighth head coach employed by Chelsea since Roman Abramovich bought the club in 2003. He was the first to lead Chelsea to the Champions League, the first manager to win the European Cup with any London club. That, though, wasn't enough: four months on from the glory of Munich, from one of the most extraordinary nights in the competition's history, a month of indifferent form was enough to see him gone. Abramovich, evidently, doesn't believe in credit in the bank. Only two managers, Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti, have lasted more than a season under him.
It's hard now, in the light of Di Matteo's dismissal, not to think back to a moment during the celebrations on Munich when the Italian excitedly shouted "I did it!" and Abramovich shrugged him off. At the time it was possible to believe it was the action of a shy man uncomfortable in the midst of cavorting players and coaches but the more obvious interpretation now seems likely: Abramovich never really believed in Di Matteo in the first place. He was, of course, appointed initially as an interim coach after Andre Villas-Boas's removal; by winning both the FA Cup and the Champions League, he effectively forced Abramovich to give him a two-year contract (with a break clause).
Even then, Pep Guardiola was Abramovich's first choice but, having quit Barcelona, he was determined to take a sabbatical and is currently living in New York. He was approached a month ago, after the 2-1 defeat to Shakhtar Donetsk and, according to reports in the Daily Mail, seemed so keen on a return to football that Chelsea's representatives thought they had their man.
Assuming Guardiola is still determined to complete his year's break, though, Chelsea is left in an awkward position, again essentially looking for a caretaker until the end of the season when the Spaniard may be available again (although even if he is, it's entirely possible he may opt for Manchester City instead, where he could link up again with the director of football Txiki Begiristain). Whoever is appointed -- and an announcement is expected on Thursday -- will be working in the shadow of Guardiola and is likely only to have a contract until the end of the season.
Rafa Benitez, who was giving a lecture in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday morning, is flying to London and is understood to be prepared to take the Chelsea job on a short-term basis. Pressed on whether he had been approached by Sport360, he answered cagily, "You ask directly, I cannot answer directly. In football a lot of people are talking so we will see what happens in the next few days. I am looking for a club that can challenge for trophies and Chelsea is one of these clubs."
So what went wrong? In retrospect, the 4-1 Super Cup defeat to Atletico Madrid in August was perhaps more significant than was thought at the time. It's not a tournament many in Britain pay much attention to -- a glorified exhibition played in a tiny stadium atop a car park in Monaco -- but it was a trophy Abramovich probably expected to win.
It was that defeat in Donetsk, though, on October 23, that set in motion the narrative of Di Matteo's dismissal. Chelsea, with its front three of Juan Mata, Oscar and Eden Hazard, had played some stunning attacking football in the early part of the season, going top of the Premier League, but there had been defensive worries. Still, as Chelsea won 2-1 at Arsenal and 4-2 at Tottenham, it seemed the new close passing style was working, even if Di Matteo kept speaking of the need for greater "balance". Shakhtar, though, exposed just how fragile this Chelsea is against a side that poses a genuine attacking threat: 2-1 was no reflection of the Ukrainian side's dominance.
With John Terry banned and then injured and Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole both having significant spells out, Chelsea's form worsened. It lost slightly freakishly to Manchester United, drew at Swansea, drew at home to Liverpool and lost at West Brom. For an impatient owner, defeat to Juventus -- and the strong possibility Chelsea will be the first European Champion in 30 years to fall at the first hurdle -- came as the final straw.
Villas-Boas went after a defeat to Napoli was followed soon after by a 1-0 reverse at West Brom. Losing at the Hawthorns and letting in three in Italy while leaving Fernando Torres on the bench is evidently a fatal combination. And Torres, of course, is part of the problem. Perhaps it's coincidence that his absence keeps signaling the sack but it wouldn't be a great surprise if it were confirmed that having paid £50m for a player, Abramovich wants to see him play. But Torres has been hideously out of form for at least three seasons and the fact Di Matteo could replace him only with an attacking midfielder is indicative of a failure of recruitment as much as of management. Three league titles, four FA Cups and a Champions League seems like a reasonable haul in nine seasons for Abramovich but you wonder how much better it might have been with a more coherent strategy.
Di Matteo, at least, can console himself with the thought that a year ago he was a man who had been sacked by West Brom. Now he is a Champions league winner and another victim of Chelsea's strange politics.