By Amit Singh
Last week many Chelsea supporters were left shocked as Roberto Di Matteo was sacked. The former player led the club to a historic Champions League victory against Bayern Munich, making him a legend in every fans eyes and cementing his place in the Chelsea history books. An achievement which neither Ancelotti or Mourinho were capable of delivering.
Yet, the Italian was sacked. Worse still, he was replaced by Rafa Benitez, a man who has never been a favourite amongst the Chelsea faithful, whom he has taunted in the past. People were outraged that the Champions League winner could be sacked, whilst his club were third in the league and still in contention for honours. However, as unpopular view as it is, it was the right call to sack Roberto di Matteo and astute a shrewd tactician in Rafa Benitez.
Roberto Di Matteo will be remembered for that Champions League victory as well as the FA Cup win over Liverpool. These feats cannot be overstated, it is incredible for a manager to win two such trophies in what was such a short spell at the club. Di Matteo took over a Chelsea in ‘crisis,’ failing in the league and about to get knocked out of the Champions League by Napoli. He turned it around, nobody can deny that, but the two cup victories concealed wider problems at the club.
Chelsea’s league form was awful, worse than AVB’s. Few fans will admit it, but you can argue that a very, very fortuitous victory in the Champions League masked this poor league form. And it was that unexpected victory in Munich which allowed them to take part in this year’s competition, relegating Tottenham to the Europa League.
However, both the 2-2 draw in the Camp Nou, as well as the victory over Bayern could have ended with Chelsea taking a huge battering. Di Matteo was praised for great defensive tactics, but in truth Chelsea were poor in Munich, riding their luck and on another day it would have been an easy victory for Bayern. Winning was still obviously incredible, but even on penalties there was a huge slice of luck. I do not want to detract from Di Matteo’s achievement, but we must consider it in context and with the required perspective.
So why sack a European champion? Roberto di Matteo was never viewed as a long term viable managerial candidate at Chelsea. There is a reason Roman Abramovich took so long in deciding whether to appoint him as manager - he was not sure about his capabilities, and the sacking from West Brom was not reassuring either.
We must also remember that Avram Grant, clearly not a great manager, was a penalty kick away from also leading Chelsea to a Champions League victory, whilst also boasting a better league record. If Chelsea had finished sixth and lost the UCL final, it would have been the worst season in the club’s history, Chelsea would have appointed a different manager and Di Matteo would have been forgotten.
As noted before Chelsea’s Premier League form was very poor last season. This year you can argue that they started wonderfully, but in truth Chelsea enjoyed an easy start. But the tactical cracks soon emerged, where they clearly lacked a natural holding player and were weak in transitions. Di Matteo set up Chelsea with a 4-2-3-1, making them quite vulnerable on the wings as Mata and Hazard play inside, failing to protect the full-backs. This was apparent against weaker sides but became exposed in recent weeks.
The fact of the matter is Chelsea hadn’t kept a clean sheet in 10 games before Rafa Benitez took over, which is a terrible record and more importantly, costing Chelsea vital points. Di Matteo had not won a league game in 4, as well as the club’s poor Champions League form, where they now need a favour from Shakhtar to progress. Factor in their Community Shield defeat to City and the 4-1 thumping they received against Atletico and it is clear something wasn’t right at Chelsea and change did not appear imminent. He simply had to go.
Hiring in November is always problematic and looking at the options, there wasn’t much available. And let’s be honest, Guardiola wasn’t going to come out of his sabbatical in November. Abramovich and his advisors needed a manager with proven Premier League experience, as well as a record for winning trophies. Rafa Benitez has both on his resumé; a UEFA Cup, La Liga title and Champions League, to name but a few of his honours.
His record at Liverpool was very good. In truth he took an average team, with limited options, quite close to winning the title as well as to another Champions League victory 2007. His transfer record was mixed but he worked within quite a tight budget, operating a low net spend; despite high player turn-over. Most importantly, he is a shrewd tactician, who made Liverpool a hard side to beat - something Chelsea need to be.
The main concern is that Benitez is likely nullify Chelsea’s creative abilities by adopting a defensive approach. But if the Spaniard finds a balance, which will require the addition of a new central midfielder like De Rossi; he may actually be the perfect manager for Chelsea, at least for now.
Chelsea fans should try to ignore the past, forgive and forget. Benitez is also a man with a point to prove after his unsuccessful spell at Inter Milan and arguably has unfinished business in the Premier League - an accolade he’s missing. The next few games are crucial, but successive points will win over the Chelsea faithful and get the team back on track.
As for Di Matteo, all Chelsea fans will wish him the best in the future, but they should remember his achievements, as brilliant as they were, in perspective.
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