LONDON: Chelsea have appointed Rafael Benitez as their interim first team-manager until the end of the season on Wednesday after the European champions sacked Roberto di Matteo.
Di Matteo was fired after Tuesday’s 3-0 defeat by Juventus in Turin left Chelsea facing elimination at the group stage of the Champions League.
But within a matter of hours Roman Abramovich, Chelsea’s Russian billionaire owner who has now sacked seven managers since buying the club in 2003, appointed former Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez, albeit in a caretaker capacity.
“Chelsea Football Club can confirm Rafael Benitez has been appointed interim first-team manager until the end of the season,” said a club statement.
“The owner (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.”
Soon after di Matteo was sacked, Benitez speaking during a coaching seminar in Abu Dhabi, confirmed his interest in the Chelsea job by telling The National newspaper: “What I will say is that I am looking for a club that can challenge for trophies, so Chelsea is one of these clubs.”
However, the fact he has joined Chelsea on such a short-term contract is bound to intensify speculation that former Barcelona boss Pep Guardiola, currently on a one-year sabbatical from football, is the man Abramovich truly wants to take charge at Stamford Bridge on a full-time basis.
The 52-year-old Benitez is due to meet Chelsea’s players at the club’s training ground in Cobham, south of London, on Thursday.
Chelsea’s statement said the Spaniard, a two-time UEFA Manager of the Year, came with an “outstanding pedigree”.
At Valencia he twice won the Spanish League and the UEFA Cup while his six years at Liverpool yielded an FA Cup and the Merseysiders’ fifth European Cup.
But his time at Anfield also saw Benitez become a hate figure among Chelsea fans, the Reds twice denying the Blues a place in the Champions League final.
Benitez left Liverpool by “mutual consent” in 2010 after the club finished the Premier League season in seventh place, their worst position since 1999.
However, days later, he then took charge of Inter Milan only to quit months later in December 2010 over the Italian giants’ alleged failure to back him in the upcoming January transfer window.
Earlier on Wednesday, Chelsea explained fans’ favourite di Matteo’s dismissal by saying “recent performances and results have not been good enough.”
Defeat in Turin left Chelsea poised to become the first ever Champions League winners to be knocked out in the group phase the following season.
Former Blues midfielder di Matteo, who appeared in two FA Cup-winning sides, was only appointed on a permanent basis in June.
He then led Chelsea to their first Champions League title – the first time any London club had won the European Cup – after replacing his sacked predecessor Andre Villas-Boas in March.
Chelsea beat Bayern Munich on penalties in the Champions League final in May, two weeks after defeating Liverpool 2-1 in the FA Cup final.
The Blues made a superb start to the current season, winning seven and drawing one of their opening eight league games to move four points clear at the Premier League summit.
But a 3-2 loss at home to Manchester United last month marked the start of a run of four games without a win.
Saturday’s 2-1 defeat at West Bromwich Albion, di Matteo’s former club, left Chelsea four points behind leaders Manchester City in third place.
Chelsea spent over £80 million ($127 million, 100 million euros) on new players in the close season, notably bringing in Belgian winger Eden Hazard from Lille and Brazilian attacking midfielder Oscar from Internacional.
Although the quality of their football drew praise from pundits in the season’s early months, that initial momentum appears to have disappeared.