It never looked like being a match that was destined for either happiness or longevity. Roman Abramovich scoured the dance floor for a more glamorous partner to take home last summer, but after being rejected by the apple of his eye felt obliged to stick with the faithful incumbent who had delivered the gift that he long desired, no matter that it hadn’t been in the way that his heart truly desired.
The Chelsea owner has dreamt about his Chelsea playing the scintillating soccer of Barcelona for years and who better to deliver that than the man who was at the helm during a period of unparalleled success at the Camp Nou. But Pep Guardiola had his mind set on a sabbatical on New York City’s Upper West Side rather than jumping into the hottest of hot seats in West London.
So close to a month after lifting the Champions League trophy, Roberto Di Matteo was handed a two-year contract. It would have taken a brave man to wager anything marginally significant on the Italian seeing out his deal.
And so it proved as the former Blues midfielder was dismissed at the first hint of a downturn in form. It was horrendously cut throat. But that doesn’t mean that it was the wrong decision.
Di Matteo may go on to prove himself as a very competent manager, but he has done little to date to show that he warrants faith that he can be the man to oversee Chelsea’s transition from a side who physically pummeled opponents into submission to one that would leave the opposition bewildered by swift short passing and inventive movement.
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Not even the most ardent Chelsea fan could fail to admit that their crowning as the champions of Europe came courtesy of a run of almost unparalleled fortune coupled with a striker in Didier Drogba seemingly on an unstoppable personal mission.
And so Abramovich has turned to another man who led a side to the Champions League trophy against all apparent logic. Rafael Benitez’s victory with Liverpool in 2005 has been classed as an epic triumph of luck, but, even if you adhere to that simplification, for the Spaniard that success was hardly an isolated event.
Benitez would go on to lead Liverpool back to the Champions League final two years later before falling to Milan. He was also closer than anyone to delivering the Reds their first league title since 1991, a feat managed in the midst of boardroom wranglings inspired by bumbling owners on a truly epic scale.
There is also the small matter of the 52-year-old’s success in Spain where he twice helmed a Valencia side that topped both Barcelona and Real Madrid to claim the La Liga title. Throw in a UEFA Cup for good measure and there are few coaches working today with a better resume.
Benitez has attained a reputation in England as a dour tactician whose philosophy is centered more on the defensive arts than attacking flair. This is not entirely fair, but Benitez is certainly an incredibly shrewd organizer of a team who builds from a solid foundation. And that could be exactly what Chelsea need right now.
Ignoring for a minute the shadow of Fernando Torres, Chelsea have an awe-inspiring collection of attacking talent. The Blues have played some breathtaking soccer at times this season, but Di Matteo was unable to couple offensive panache with defensive solidity. Surely Benitez has a much better chance of realizing this balance than his predecessor.
Of course, with Benitez, Chelsea also get the bonus of hiring the last man to get the best out of the player that arguably represents Chelsea’s most pressing concern: Fernando Torres. It is optimistic to think that Benitez’s arrival will prove to be an immediate fix to the misfiring striker, but if Torres’ problems are at least in part psychological then Benitez may be able to have a positive impact.
And if, under Benitez, Torres is still the same ghost of the player that once terrorized defenses at Anfield then Abramovich may finally be convinced to accept that it was £50 million very much misspent and turn instead to the prolific Radamel Falcao.
So there are plenty of reasons for Chelsea fans to have, if not excitement, then a degree of optimism for what the rest of this season will bring.
Despite the positives, it would be negligent not to acknowledge that the appointment could go badly wrong. A relationship between a headstrong and all-powerful owner and an uncompromising and power craving manager could prove to be a relationship made in soccer hell.
Given this prospective personality clash and the fact the Benitez is, no matter how much time he is given, likely to play the Barcelona-esque style Abramovich craves, the relationship between the two is unlikely to last long. While it persists, though, both parties could well reap the benefits.