Roberto Di Matteo cheated death at the Allianz Arena in May. With Didier Drogba's bullet header against Bayern Munich and Chelsea's penalty-shootout triumph that followed, Di Matteo won a Champions League and a stay of execution from the most ruthless owner in football.
Chelsea were European champions for the first time in their history. Di Matteo had masterminded the emphatic retort to their 3-1 defeat at Napoli—the result that killed Andre Villas-Boas—and then saw them past Benfica, Barcelona and Bayern.
Not even Roman Abramovich could sack him after that run—though we sensed he wanted to.
But still he made Di Matteo sweat over a long-term contract. And still we wondered—with some justification—whether the manager who had galvanized Chelsea and delivered their finest moment would be given the chance to repeat it.
This was certainly not the way Abramovich planned it. Chelsea's quest for global domination called for a box-office name like Pep Guardiola, not the pragmatic ways of a relative coaching novice who returned to Stamford Bridge via Milton Keynes Dons and West Bromwich Albion.
Di Matteo was a stopgap, a means to an end. But he dared to dream big, and Chelsea dared not offload the manager who had taken their fans to never-before reached heights.
And so it was. Di Matteo got his contract and Abramovich poured another £60-plus million into his team—adding the considerable talents of Eden Hazard, Oscar, Victor Moses, Marko Marin and Cesar Azpilicueta to an already impressive roster.
On paper, Di Matteo would have two years to realize their potential. In Chelsea time, that amounted to as long as he could temper Abramovich's desires to replace him.
Said Chelsea chief executive Ron Gourlay in June, as per BBC Sport:
Although he has set the bar very high in the short time he has been in charge, we know that Roberto is the right man to lead Chelsea on to further success.
Read between the lines and that's an ultimatum. Di Matteo's only chance for survival was to lead his team to prolific success this season. Flicker for a moment and he'd be gone.
Di Matteo gave Abramovich the excuse he'd been looking for on Tuesday night. Chelsea's 3-0 loss to Juventus threatens to make them the first Champions League holders to exit at the group stage, while Premier League defeats to Manchester United and West Brom have undermined domestic matters.
Di Matteo is no more. He's the latest casualty of the Roman empire and it was always going to end this way.
Read a statement at Chelsea's official website:
The team's recent performances and results have not been good enough and the owner and the Board felt that 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.
In failing to satisfy Abramovich, Di Matteo joins the ranks of Claudio Ranieri, Jose Mourinho, Avram Grant, Luiz Felipe Scolari, Carlo Ancelotti and Villas-Boas. Guus Hiddink left on his own accord.
The 42-year-old admitted he got it wrong in Turin. His tactics failed and Juventus took advantage expertly. "If anyone has to take blame, it's me," he told reporters. "I selected a team I was convinced would win or at least draw."
We've been here before, of course. Villas-Boas came undone against Napoli last season and was gone soon after. Di Matteo was the beneficiary, and Abramovich was vindicated for his ruthlessness in the most emphatic way possible.
The man who follows Di Matteo may come too late to save them in the Champions League. If Juventus avoid defeat at Shakhtar Donetsk, Chelsea will trudge off to the Europa League. Their defense will be over.
The Blues' precarious position in Europe won't put off potential candidates. Neither will the looming presence of Abramovich and the knowledge they will walk one of the thinnest lines in football.
Chelsea have a world-class squad. They have players who are the envy of the best clubs in Europe, and they have everything in place to achieve success. Abramovich might be hard to work for, but such temptations will blind those to the inevitable troubles ahead.
ESPNFC suggest Rafa Benitez could be a short-term option. The former Liverpool manager left Inter Milan in 2010 and has been quoted in a Dubai newspaper (as per the Guardian) as saying he'd be open to an approach from Chelsea.
If that happens, we can expect the Guardiola rumors to threaten Benitez's position between here and the end of the season. Most maintain it's the former Barcelona coach Abramovich covets most, and Chelsea have already made one failed approach to hire him. They may well try again in the summer.
Whoever takes over from Di Matteo will know full well what they're getting into. Chelsea's ninth manager of the Abramovich era will be subject to the same fickle judgement, interference and impatience that has blighted the eight before him.
Ironically, Abramovich's defense can be found in the story of last season and the success of the man he's just fired. Many thought he was too flippant in sacking Villas-Boas, but the end result was Champions League and FA Cup glory.
Di Matteo proved him right, but his use had now been served.
But whatever we think of Abramovich's hiring-and-firing policy, we should never forget the Russian has made everything possible for the club he bought in 2003.
Without Abramovich, Chelsea would be a struggling Premier League side or worse. Players like Hazard and Juan Mata would be visiting occasionally to inflict footballing lessons, and Blues fans would be looking up in envy at London clubs like Arsenal and Tottenham.
With Abramovich, they've assembled a side to win the Champions League and entertain realistic ambitions of attracting the best young manager in the world.
You have to feel sympathy for Di Matteo, but Chelsea will do just fine without him.
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