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Rafael Benitez: The Right Man to Replace Di Matteo at Chelsea?

MILAN, ITALY - NOVEMBER 28:  Inter FC head coach Rafael Benitez during the Serie A match between Inter and Parma at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on November 28, 2010 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)
Claudio Villa/Getty Images
Tony MabertContributor INovember 17, 2016

After just eight months in charge of Chelsea, during which time he won the two biggest cup competitions he possibly could have claimed for the club, Roberto Di Matteo has been booted out of Stamford Bridge.

The Italian coach proved to be Mr. Right Now but, ultimately, not Mr. Right for the Blues. After a spell of lacklustre form and the prospect of elimination from the group stages of the Champions League, his tenure ended following a 3-0 defeat at Juventus.

With Chelsea announcing the sacking at 9a.m. local time, speculation quickly turned to who Di Matteo's successor will be. The name Pep Guardiola has predictably been cited, but it is another Spaniard who is now the bookies' favourite to take the job.

The odds on Rafael Benitez taking over until the end of the season have dropped to as low as 8/1 on, with the former Liverpool boss admitting his interest and leaving a prior engagement in Abu Dhabi to fly back to the UK and hold negotiations (both via ESPN FC)

Benitez has been available for almost two years, ever since he was fired by Inter for his failure in the wake of Jose Mourinho's departure.

Now he is in the frame to follow in Mourinho's footsteps once more, after Di Matteo reverted to the blueprint laid down by the former Chelsea boss with such success last season.

Benitez had plenty of run-ins with Chelsea during his time as Liverpool manager, a tenure which was terminated at the end his fifth season at the club—and arguably his only poor campaign.

In his final year at Anfield, he won his battle for greater power over affairs at the club, but a sharp decline in results and a series of misjudged signings saw him eventually lose the power struggle.

There are some good points to take from his final days in charge—one of his final acts as manager was to sign Raheem Sterling, for example—but an early exit from the Champions League and a seventh-place finish in the league was just not good enough for the Reds' ambitions. How times change.

Now, Rafa is set to walk into a job where third in the league after 12 games and the mere possibility of going out of the group stage is not good enough.

An autocratic owner in Roman Abramovich, strong personalities in the dressing room and a short-term contract do not immediately seem like the best conditions for such a forthright coach to thrive at Stamford Bridge.

The last time he walked into a dressing room full of players who were newly-crowned champions, things did not go too well. The club were unconvincing in defence of both their Serie A and Champions League titles, and he was fired just before Christmas with a record of 12 wins and seven defeats from his 25 games at the helm.

As Marco Materazzi said recently (via ESPN FC):

I never got on with Rafa. He even made me remove from my locker the photographs of my happiest moments with Mourinho and [World Cup-winning Italy boss] Marcello Lippi. He thought that he knew everything, but instead he was afraid of his own shadow.

How the Spaniard would be received by John Terry and co. at Chelsea is enough to make you fear for him. 

Still, in spite of how his reputation has been tarnished in the wake of his Italian misadventure and subsequent ill-judged media appearances, the 52-year-old still has a track record which would be the envy of most managers.

He earned his move to Liverpool after leading Valencia to two La Liga titles—the only times the Spanish championship has not been won by either Real Madrid or Barcelona since Deportivo la Coruna in 2000. While Depor's success proved to be a flash in the pan, Valencia remain a side which consistently qualifies for the Champions League.

At Anfield, he won the club their fifth European Cup in his first season and subsequently led them to qualify for the Champions League in each of the subsequent three years, culminating in the Reds finishing second in 2009.

If you give almost any manager a long enough timeline at a club, they will eventually fall short, and it happened to Benitez at Liverpool just as he began to plan more for the next decade on Merseyside and less for the next game.

Chelsea and Benitez do have the potential to work, if both sides are prepared to compromise and work toward the same goals. However, these are two parties who both enjoy doing things their way. That is likely to make for a very uneasy partnership, no matter how short-term it is set to last.

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