Rafael Benitez was appointed as “Interim First Team Manager” on Wednesday and in doing so became the 9th manager to take charge at Stamford Bridge under Roman Abramovich.
Looking at it bluntly, one could argue that Benitez is widely regarded as a better manager than Roberto Di Matteo and thus his appointment should come as no shock. However, that view rips the context and the emotion out of the situation, something Roman Abramovich has done regularly since taking over the club in 2003.
The 46-year-old Russian is truly a complex and contradicting personality. His love for the sport cannot be questioned, just look at his reactions during the course of the 90 minutes when Chelsea are in action. His care for the club is undiminished, no one spends that kind of money on players and managers if they have lost interest.
Yet, he has a cold, calculating, ruthless side. He demands success every season and is prepared to pay for it. The regularity with which he sacks managers is unprecedented in English football.
The truth is, no one really knows what he is like as a person. He has never given an interview in any public media. From accounts of people around him he comes across as a polite and private guy who loves football. I am sure most Chelsea fans don’t even know what he sounds like. This makes judging him an impossible task.
No one can realistically say his reign at the club has been a success. The hire and fire policy defies logic and creates a poor image of the club and a poor atmosphere inside it.Yet, no one can say it has been a failure. Chelsea are currently enjoying their most successful period in their 107 year history. 10 trophies in nine seasons is pretty impressive.
Making sense of his decisions is therefore a fruitless and frustrating task for all of us. At any other club, winning the Champions League and the FA Cup would guarantee you the job for next season. In fact, most owners would be desperate to get the manager tied down as soon as possible.
Yet, it was June 13, almost a month after winning the Champions League in Munich, when Di Matteo was finally given his chance. The seed of doubt was placed before the season had even started. Abramovich was not convinced. He had looked at all his other options and when they failed to materialize he had no other choice.
Looking back at it, Di Matteo was given a one-way ticket to Landmineville. One mistake, one slip, one blip and BOOM. He had practically no chance of surviving the season. Chelsea started like a house on fire, winning seven of their first eight matches in the league.
On October 20th, after demolishing Spurs 4-2, they sat atop the Premier League, Di Matteo as comfortable as any Chelsea manager could be. Yet it was clear that they had too small a squad to cope with the volume of games in their fixture list.
And then it started, Loss to Shakhtar in the Champions League, Loss to Manchester United in the Premier League, Draw against Swansea. Late goals gave them wins against Manchester United in the League Cup and Shakhtar at home in the Champions League but a Draw against Liverpool and a Loss to West Brom made his position perilous.
Abramovich had seen it. He had known it all along but now he was sure. He was prepared to pull the trigger but was advised to hold back. Maybe the winner of the Champions League could arrest the slide in the same competition.
However, Di Matteo dropped £50m signing Fernando Torres and then lost 3-0 to Juventus in Turin. There was no coming back now.
So, as we all sat staring at the news in shock as Di Matteo was relieved of his duties the next morning, it was business as usual for Abramovich.
Judging decisions requires knowledge of the person making them. Yet our little understanding of Abramovich is so contradictory it is impossible to predict what will happen next. All we can do is learn lessons from previous sackings and be sure that someday soon, Benitez will go.
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