Rafael Benitez was confirmed last night as the interim successor to Roberto Di Matteo as manager at Chelsea, with scope for the former Liverpool Champions League winner to stay in the job long-term if he is successful.
Benitez, 52, agreed a contract that lasts until the end of the season and although in different circumstances he would not have been the club's first choice, he will be given the chance to establish himself with the option of a further 12 months if successful. The club said in a statement: "The owner [Roman Abramovich] and the board believe that in Benitez we have a manager with significant experience at the highest level of football, who can come in and immediately help deliver our objectives."
Benitez will meet the team today for the first time after Di Matteo was sacked at around 4am yesterday morning when the squad arrived back at the training ground from Gatwick airport following their return from Turin.
The 3-0 defeat by Juventus, which leaves them on the brink of elimination from the Champions League group stages, was the final straw for Abramovich and the club's board. Pep Guardiola was their first choice but the former Barcelona coach will not abandon his year-long sabbatical in New York. The Borussia Dortmund coach, Jürgen Klopp, is also admired at the club, so too Roberto Martinez at Wigan Athletic and the Germany national team coach, Joachim Löw. During the summer Di Matteo was charged with giving the club a distinctive attacking style. There were doubts over whether he could achieve that and over the course of the season the club's hierarchy have increasingly felt the team lacked an identity and style.
He had won the Champions League employing a defensive approach that the club accepted at the time as pragmatic. The defeat by Juventus, a poor, incoherent display, was the confirmation the club needed to make the change. It left Chelsea with just two wins from their last eight games.
However, the club felt that a messy battle over compensation for any of their key targets would have proved problematic. They wanted a manager in place in time for Sunday's crucial Premier League game against Manchester City at Stamford Bridge.
The club accept privately that Benitez is not popular with Chelsea fans, because of his association with Liverpool and the two clubs' intense rivalry when Jose Mourinho was in charge. However, they believe that Benitez is capable of implementing the kind of distinctive style and approach they want.
Chelsea felt they had no option but to dismiss Di Matteo with news of their approach to Benitez having leaked. The 41-year-old looked grim-faced as he boarded the flight back to Gatwick along with his players, members of the press and guests including former Chelsea striker Andrei Shevchenko.
In a statement last night, Di Matteo said he had a "deep and unreserved" passion for Chelsea and would "treasure for the rest of my life" the club's victory in the Champions League last season. Should Southampton sack Nigel Adkins, Di Matteo, who is a close friend of Saints executive chairman Nicola Cortese, would be a prime candidate for the job.
Juan Mata said it had been "a difficult day" for the club. "With him as a manager, we won our first Champions League," he wrote on his Facebook page.
Chelsea are bracing themselves for the Football Association's decision on whether to charge referee Mark Clattenburg over Chelsea's allegations of racism, likely to be today. Didier Drogba has requested Fifa permission for a loan outside the transfer window from club Shanghai Shenhua, whose season has finished, with Chelsea a possible destination.
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