You have to feel sorry for Roberto Di Matteo. The Chelsea manager was sacked yesterday by owner Roman Abramovich, who cited the failure to progress in Europe and recent poor performances as the reason. Whilst performances in this year’s Champions League have not been great for Chelsea and qualification for the next round increasingly difficult, the team itself is still firing on all cylinders. Sitting 3rd in the league, 4 points behind leaders Manchester City and still in all domestic cup competitions, its hard to work out exactly what Abramovich was unhappy about. That is until you delve into the past 12 months since Villas Boas was sacked and replaced by Di Matteo as interim coach. The Italian was clearly never the front-runner for the job long-term but his success in turning around the team and eventually delivering the one prize Abramovich wanted the most – the Champions League, made it hard for the Russian to give it to anyone else. Added into this, Chelsea’s first and some say only choice for new manager, Pep Guardiola’s reluctance to take on the job, so soon after leaving Barcelona due to burn out, took the choice out of the owners hands. Abramovich tried hard to convince him but finally conceded that Guardiola needed 6 months of rest before he would feel ready to get back into management. Left with little option and growing appreciation from the fans and players towards Di Matteo, the billionaire handed Di Matteo the job.
However from day one, Di Matteo’s card was marked. It was Abramovich who carried out the summer transfers, spending heavily on talented youngsters like Eden Hazard, Oscar, Cesar Azpilicueta and Victor Moses, with Di Matteo sitting in the wings. It was Abramovich who publicly flaunted his love of Guardiola and his desire to appoint him as head coach only weeks after Di Matteo had bagged the Champions League trophy. And most importantly it was Abramovich that spent the $50 million to bring Fernando Torres to Stamford Bridge, only to watch his prize asset fail from grace spectacularly. The latter was not something Di Matteo could have prevented but this season, he had the chance to revitalize the Spaniard and make him the focal point of his attack, especially with the departure of Didier Drogba to China. But the Italian coach struggled to motivate Torres, who again has looked lackluster on the pitch this season, resulting in Tuesday nights humiliating relegation to the bench. Despite not having any other striking options available to Di Matteo to face Juventus, his decision to bench Torres may have been the final nail in his coffin as an enraged Abramovich watched on.
The timing of Di Matteo’s dismissal may be the only thing that surprises many. Granted Champions league progression is dependant on the final game and results going for them, but it’s still a possibility. With the league only 12 games in, Chelsea have been impressive scoring on average 2 goals a game, and having only lost two games so far – against Manchester United last month and at the weekend to an improving West Brom. They are in the quarter finals of the League Cup with a winnable tie against Leeds United, having already knocked out Manchester United and Wolves along the way. And with the FA Cup still in its early rounds, a domestic treble is still a realistic objective for the club. For Di Matteo to be sacked before the likes of Southampton’s Nigel Atkins (2 wins out of 12 games this season), Reading’s Brian McDermott (1 win in 11 games) and QPR’s Mark Hughes (0 wins in 12 games) is unbelievable. That is until the news surfaced that AC Milan was keen to hire Guardiola as their new manager. The Spaniard responded positively for the first time in 6 months, setting of alarm bells at the Chelsea headquarters and in particular to Abramovich. Not wanting to lose his prize, the Russian moved swiftly, clearing the space for Guardiola to take over, either immediately or in the summer. It would appear that he is likely to start in the summer as yesterday Chelsea announced that it had hired Rafa Benitez as manager until the end of the season. Discussions between Chelsea and Guardiola’s people continue with no news as yet.
For Di Matteo, the news is harsh but was expected. The timing is not great for him as he looked to be settling into the role and was undoubtedly planning for transfers in the January window but the coach will now likely spend that as a spectator. The only good thing to come from this whole experience, putting aside the exceptionally large payout he will receive from Chelsea as part of his dismissal, is that his reputation in the world of football has been enhanced. After less than fruitful managerial spells at Milton Keynes Dons and West Brom, the success he has had at Chelsea with increase his stock across the globe and he can be assured that it won’t be long before he findshimself in another high-profile role. For Chelsea, the hunt is on for manager no. 10 in the Abramovich era (Benetiz is the 9th), with Guardiola firm favourite to get the nod. But if the Russian billionaire is unable to persuade him to take the role, Abramovich may be left without a manager and with egg on his face.