Six months and a day since guiding Chelsea to their greatest ever moment, Roberto Di Matteo this morning found himself in the familiar managerial ejector seat, jettisoned out of the club just hours after a humbling 3-0 defeat to Juventus in Turin that left the Blues with qualification to the last-16 of Europe’s premier club competition out of their hands.
After just 2 wins in 8 in all competitions, and 2 points gained from the last 12 in the league, the Chelsea board acted quickly to send their manager packing, his second Chelsea exit in unsavoury circumstances, just 161 days after appointing him permanent manager. However, the latest sorry saga at the club makes clear one thing; that Di Matteo was never meant to last beyond May in the first place. A smooth transition from assistant coach to interim manager followed Andre Villas-Boas’ axing in March, but what followed surpassed the expectations and dreams of absolutely everybody.
Turning around the last-16 Champions League tie against Napoli, in which the Blues suffered a 3-1 first-leg defeat in Naples, was one thing, but going all the way to Germany and actually winning the damn thing, after so many others before him had tried and failed, was truly remarkable. Combined with securing the club’s 7th FA Cup win, Di Matteo left Bruce Buck, Ron Gourlay and the owner Roman Abramovich with something of a summer headache.
How could the club possibly get rid of the Italian now, after he had turned the season around so spectacularly, and delivered the Holy Grail that Abramovich had craved since buying the club in 2003? Fans and the media alike would savage them for so ruthlessly disposing of a European Cup-winning manager. The only way around it would be to secure the services of Pep Guardiola, yet once the former Barcelona boss made it clear his intentions were to take a year’s break from the game, the Chelsea board were effectively stuck with Di Matteo.
That is the reality behind him being handed a two-year contract in June; the board really had no other option. The manner of his dismissal this morning has indicated that they were always planning to pull the trigger at the first sign of real trouble. It is quite possible that Chelsea still might squeeze through this Champions League group, if Shakhtar beat Juventus on matchday 6 and the Blues get their win against Nordsjaelland, yet the Italian simply won’t be given the opportunity to find out.
Nor will he be given the opportunity to turn around an admittedly dour run of league form and rediscover the Chelsea that were so sublime in defeating both Arsenal and Tottenham away from home just a few weeks ago. The excellent start to the campaign might just have been the early nail in his coffin; starting so unexpectedly well has inflated expectation levels to slightly unreasonable levels. Sitting 3rd in the table, just 4 points off league leaders Manchester City, is actually rather reasonable indeed.
The problems that have surfaced this season have largely been of somebody else’s making. Off-field dramas involving John Terry, John Mikel Obi and Mark Clattenburg, as well as left-back twitter tattle from Ashley Cole and Ryan Bertrand, have dominated talk at most of the manager’s weekly press conferences, to the point where Di Matteo was visibly drained by the constant soap operas.
But it has been summer transfer dealings, of which Chelsea managers naturally have little control and influence, which have really left Di Matteo short. Ploughing on into the season with just Fernando Torres and Daniel Sturridge as the club’s only two recognised strikers was a barmy idea, as was shipping out the vast majority of the central midfield talent without replacing like-for-like. The signings that were made were indeed inspired however not nearly enough to match the demands placed upon the manager and the team from above.
That is not to say that Di Matteo does not have his managerial flaws; his side have looked weaker and weaker defensively as the weeks have gone on, not helped by John Terry’s continued absence, but all the same not rectified by the manager quickly enough. His tactics have often been predictable, his reactive nature not enough to save his team points, and his inability to successfully use the full first team squad at his disposal has left certain players already feeling fatigued. However, at just 42 and in only his third managerial job, nobody can pretend they ever thought him to be the finished managerial product.
Now the prospect of Rafa Benitez flying in to our rescue, on an interim basis, looms large, like Superstorm Sandy about to strike. If the former Liverpool boss is in the Stamford Bridge dugout by Sunday’s visit of Manchester City, expect a toxic, venomous welcome for the man Blues fans call ‘the fat Spanish waiter’. It is not just his Liverpool connections, and ultimate failings, that make Benitez so unwanted in SW6, but rather his dour tactics and man-management that would stifle the attacking progress this young team is currently making. Benitez would be less welcome in West London right now than a Mark Clattenburg-Alex Ferguson dinner party, though the fact the Chelsea board are even considering it shows the growing contempt and disdain they hold the supporters’ opinions in.
It remains the harsh reality at Chelsea that there aren’t any second chances, there isn’t the opportunity to ride through a little slump in form, work out what’s going wrong and try to rectify the problems. It’s the succeed-first-time-round-or-be-sacked mantra that runs through the club, a mantra that means every manager in the Abramovich era has either had to deliver the Premier League title or European Cup, or else be fired.
Di Matteo probably knew that score when he signed the contract. After waiting around for so long in the summer he probably knew he wasn’t the board’s first choice and that he’d be sent packing at the first sign of trouble. As plenty have commented, his two-year deal represented little more than a Champions League win bonus at the end of the day. However his dismissal, signalling the imminent arrival of manager #9 of the Abramovich era, once again indicates a deeper problem in the running of the club.
There is little recognition of achievement, of the benefits of stability and continuity, of the feelings of those who pay good money to follow the team over land and sea. There is only ruthlessness, a merciless obsession with being better at any cost. Some might view this as a positive and point to our brimming trophy cabinet as evidence that it works out fine in the end, but for how much longer can the club stagger from one callous drama to another without it having a lasting detrimental effect?
A great bloody shambles, we know what we are.
You can follow Sam on Twitter @daspecial_1.