REUTERS - Chelsea’s madcap managerial merry-go-round spun for the umpteenth time on Wednesday when Roberto Di Matteo, who guided the club to Champions League glory just six months ago, was sacked.
Winning Europe’s elite club competition had been a burning desire for Roman Abramovich since the Russian billionaire took over as the owner at Stamford Bridge in 2003.
Di Matteo found the ‘Holy Grail’ against all the odds in May but Tuesday’s 3-0 reverse at Juventus, a defeat that leaves Chelsea on the brink of Champions League elimination, prompted Abramovich to end the reign of his eighth manager at the club.
“The team’s recent performances and results have not been good enough and the owner and board felt a change was necessary now to keep the club moving in the right direction as we head into a vitally important part of the season,” the club said on their website (www.chelsea.com).
Chelsea, who have won only two of their last eight games in all competitions, added they would be making an announcement shortly regarding a new manager with bookmakers listing former Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez and ex-Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola as early favourites.
“The club faces a difficult task ahead in qualifying for the knockout stages of the Champions League as well as maintaining a strong challenge for the top of the Premier League while competing in three other cup competitions,” the club said.
”The owner and the board would like to thank Roberto for all he has done for the club since taking over in March. Roberto helped guide us to an historic Champions League victory and a seventh FA Cup.
“We will never forget the huge contribution he has made to this club’s history and he will always be welcome at Stamford Bridge.”
Di Matteo was assistant coach before taking over the first team in a caretaker capacity when Portuguese Andre Villas-Boas was sacked in March and he helped turn a mediocre season into a great one.
The Italian inherited a team 3-1 down to Napoli in the first leg of the last 16 of the Champions League but he inspired a thrilling fightback in the second leg.
Chelsea then knocked out Benfica in the quarter-finals before beating overwhelming favourites Barcelona in the semis and defeating Bayern Munich on penalties in the final in the German team’s own Allianz Arena stadium.
Di Matteo had also won the FA Cup two weeks earlier by overcoming Liverpool 2-1 in the final at Wembley and the reward for achieving a memorable trophy double was to be elevated to permanent first-team coach at the end of the campaign.
Chelsea backed the Italian in the close season by making a host of expensive signings, including Belgian playmaker Eden Hazard and young Brazilian midfielder Oscar.
The Londoners won the Champions League in gritty fashion with a series of backs-to-the-wall performances but the start of the new season heralded a new vibrant attacking style with Hazard, Oscar and Spaniard Juan Mata pulling the strings.
Abramovich had always wanted his Chelsea side to play with flair and panache in the manner of Barcelona, probably the best team in world football, and they started the new season in scintillating fashion with seven wins in eight league matches.
The underlying feeling among the fans at Stamford Bridge, however, was that the new-look team had been set up to emulate the passing system created by Guardiola and that perhaps Di Matteo was simply keeping the seat warm for the former Barcelona coach.
Guardiola walked away from Barca last season, saying he needed a year away from the game to recharge his batteries.
Abramovich has courted him in the past and it would surprise no one to see the former Spain midfielder take the next spin on the Chelsea merry-go-round. (Additional reporting by Alison Wildey; Editing by John O‘Brien)