Rafael Benitez to be appointed Chelsea manager tonight as he jets in for interview to replace Roberto Di Matteo

Benitez to take charge until the end of the season as Guardiola remains target to lead Chelsea on long-term basis

Rafa Benitez is expected to be confirmed as Chelsea’s new manager this evening.

Chelsea are preparing to make a statement confirming the shock appointment following this morning’s dismissal of Roberto Di Matteo. Whether his appointment will be permanent or a temporary measure in preparation for the arrival of former Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola in the summer remains the subject of intense speculation.

For Benitez it represents an astonishing return to management after almost exactly two years without a job since he was sacked by Internazionale. Benitez is flying into London from Abu Dhabi  in preparation for tonight’s announcement.

Benitez is Chelsea’s first-choice to replace Di Matteo, who was axed in the early hours of this morning after Chelsea lost at Juventus last night, leaving them in danger of failing to qualify for the knockout phase of the Champions League for the first time in their history.

The Evening Standard is reporting that the job is Benitez’s to lose, although he will only be given a contract until the end of the season with owner Roman Abramovich still keen on hiring former Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola for the long term.

Benitez turned down the chance to be an interim coach at Chelsea in March after the sacking of Andre Villas-Boas and the post went to Di Matteo.

The 52-year-old wanted an 18-month contract rather than the three months he was offered but it is believed he is now prepared to accept a caretaker role, having been out of work since being fired by Inter Milan in 2010.

Benitez was at an event in Abu Dhabi this morning and when asked whether he has had any contact from Chelsea, Benitez replied: “You asked me directly, I can’t 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 are one of these clubs. I have to talk with my agent and see what he has been doing the last couple of days. But I am just trying to go to a team that can win.”

Chelsea see Benitez as the man that can get the best out of ailing £50million striker Fernando Torres.

The Spain international has scored just 19 goals in 87 appearances since joining in January 2011, which compares badly with the 65 he netted in 91 League starts for Liverpool, most of which came when Benitez was in charge at Anfield having signed him from Atletico Madrid in 2007.

Chelsea fans will not welcome his appointment, although there is still speculation linking former boss Avram Grant with the job.

It is believed Chelsea have considered firing Di Matteo for some time and that it was not a knee-jerk reaction to last night’s loss or defeat to West Brom in the Premier League on Saturday.

It is understood there has been concern over his failure to get the best out of the squad this season, especially having spent over £80million on new players in the summer.

Chelsea’s first choice to replace Di Matteo on a long-term basis has always been Guardiola. They have been in contact with his advisors regularly over the past 18 months and tried to hire him in the summer despite Di Matteo winning the Champions League in May.

Chelsea have been in touch again in the past few days but are still facing a difficult task. Guardiola is taking a year sabbatical in New York and has no intention of cutting it short.

He is expected to make a decision on his future in the new year with Manchester City, AC Milan and Bayern Munich also interested in him but Chelsea’s sacking of Di Matteo will not help their chances of luring him. Abramovich has sacked eight managers since he bought the club in 2003 and the instability is in danger of putting off Guardiola.

In May, Di Matteo fulfilled Abramovich’s dream as Chelsea won the Champions League for the first time in their history but last night’s 3-0 loss left their hopes of retaining the title in doubt.

Di Matteo was sacked as the team arrived back from Turin and Standard Sport understands chief executive Ron Gourlay and chairman Bruce Buck delivered the news on behalf of Abramovich. The manager said a quick farewell to his players, many of whom have been devastated by his departure. Chelsea announced the decision in a statement this morning but there was no mention of a caretaker manager, which strongly suggests the new boss will be in place for Sunday’s match against Manchester City.

The downturn in Chelsea’s fortunes has been dramatic because it was just over a month ago that the club beat Tottenham 4-2, which was their sixth victory in a row in all competitions, to go four points clear at the top of the Premier League.

But the club have won just two of their last eight matches since then, which has seen them drop to third place in the top flight and also third in their Champions League group with just one match remaining and looking certain to miss out on qualifying for the group phase.

Chelsea banked £47m for winning European’s biggest prize and earlier this month the Blues credited that sum with them posting a £1m annual profit, their first during the Abramovich era.

However, an early exit this season would leave them in danger of falling back into the red next year — last term Manchester United received £28m after failing to make the last 16.

Chelsea said: “The team’s recent performances and results have not been good enough and the owner and the board felt that a change was necessary now to keep the club moving in the right direction.”

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