Chelsea Analysis: Roberto Di Matteo, Rafael Benitez, Fernando Torres & the Fans
This week has been tough for Chelsea fans. The defeat at the hands of Juventus was bad as it took qualification from the group stage of the Champions League out of Chelsea's hands. But it was the events that followed which have left many fans wondering what has happened to the club they love.
I have supported Chelsea Football Club since I was seven years old and was told I was not allowed to support Arsenal because my dad supports Tottenham Hotspur. I fell in love with a team who played exciting football, who looked like they enjoyed the game and who wore their shirts with pride. That team included names such as Dennis Wise, Gianfranco Zola and one Roberto Di Matteo.
Di Matteo's playing career ended prematurely after an horrific triple-leg-fracture in 2001. I remember feeling very sad when it was confirmed that he wouldn't be returning, and with the departure of Zola, I lost the last of the Chelsea team that made me support the club.
It was OK, though. John Terry had emerged as a great centre back and future leader, and they were starting to make progress in the Premier League, finishing in the Champions League places twice.
The club's finances didn't look quite as promising. I remember begging my dad to get me a junior membership, as the club needed my £16 a year to stay afloat. Then along came Roman Abramovich, a Russian billionaire with endlessly deep pockets, and that ended the financial struggle.
Two years after his arrival at Stamford Bridge, with a new squad and an excellent manager in Jose Mourinho, Chelsea won the league for the first time in 50 years. I remember crying when Terry lifted that trophy. I had never thought I would see such success when I had started supporting the club.
After repeating this success the following year, pressure increased on Mourinho to bring the Champions League trophy. He failed and was sacked, and so began the managerial merry-go-round which has been spinning out of control at Stamford Bridge ever since.
When Roberto Di Matteo was appointed as interim first-team manager in March, I was pleased to see a man I had adored as a player at the helm of a club he clearly loved as dearly as the fans do. When he won the Champions League in Munich, I was there, and it was the best day of my life so far.
It took a while, but once he was given the role on a permanent basis, I started to believe that this would herald a period of stability for the club, a base from which they could continue to grow and establish Chelsea FC as one of the greatest clubs in the world over decades.
I was wrong.
Di Matteo made some astute signings in Oscar and Hazard, and they added a great deal to the attacking force at the club. The problem was the lack of a striker. With Didier Drogba's departure after having scored the winning penalty in the Munich final, Fernando Torres was left as the first-choice striker.
The manager had asked for funds to try to secure the services of Hulk or Radamel Falcao to further bolster the attack, a request which was denied by Abramovich. He was told that he already had a world-class striker at his disposal and should get the best from him.
You could forgive Di Matteo for asking where this player was hiding.
Many people had said that the presence of Drogba and his status within the squad was affecting Torres' morale and that being the lone striker would improve his performances. They were wrong.
Torres continued to fail in front of goal. And with the absence of John Terry through suspension and subsequent injury, the team's form began to falter.
They were leaking goals and failing to take enough of the chances created by the midfield trio. Without a win in three games, they travelled to West Bromwich Albion in need of a win. Before being substituted after 63 minutes, Torres hadn't had a shot on goal. He is a striker, one which Abramovich paid £50 million for, and in more than an hour on the pitch, he couldn't bring himself to try to find the target once.
After this dismal performance, but not solely based on that, Di Matteo dropped Torres from the starting 11 to face Juventus in the crucial Champions League game. Chelsea went down 1-0, and at half-time I tweeted "We don't have a striker. Thing is, if we bring Torres on, will that change?"
As he was brought on with 20 minutes to go, with the team in desperate need of two goals to keep their fate in their own hands, I hoped against all logic and reason that he would surge forward with pride and inspire yet another great Chelsea Champions League comeback. For the umpteenth time, I was disappointed. As the final whistle blew I tweeted one word in response to my own earlier question: "Nope."
It was another one-word message which awoke me from my restless sleep on Wednesday morning, a text from a fellow fan I'd met on the journey to Munich. The message which my bleary eyes and sleepy head struggled to understand for a second was "sacked."
Of course, I knew immediately that he meant that Di Matteo had been relieved of his duties as first-team coach by the club. I searched for every source I could to try to disprove it, but the official statement on the official club website put paid to that.
What was interesting was that that official statement mentioned that Robbie's replacement would be announced shortly. Throughout the day further details emerged which made the dismissal of a club legend, as both a player and a manager, even harder to stomach.
He was fired at four o'clock in the morning when the team arrived at their Cobham training ground following the flight back from Italy. As far as I am concerned, that is no way to treat any employee, especially one as loyal and passionate as Di Matteo, whose statement following his departure was the epitome of class and summed him up perfectly.
I was disgusted and thought it was a new low. I was wrong.
Just when the fans thought things couldn't get much worse, rumours started flying that former Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez was being lined up to replace Di Matteo. That vicious rumour was confirmed in the evening, leaving many fans looking for something to smack their heads against in frustration.
Outsiders may find the vitriol directed at Benitez by Chelsea fans difficult to comprehend. For me, the reason he is so resoundingly hated is because of the things he has said about Chelsea fans in the past.
Managers have digs at opposing clubs and their managers. It's a normal part of the media circus in football these days. It's when these mind games turn on the fans that they become ugly.
When Benitez was in charge at Liverpool, he told the London Evening Standard, "We don't need to give away flags for our fans to wave —our supporters are always there with their hearts, and that is all we need. It's the passion of the fans that helps to win matches—not flags."
At the press conference unveiling him as the interim first-team coach, he had a chance to make peace with the fans and try to claw back some of the ground he had put between himself and them. He didn't take this opportunity, preferring instead to tell the the Daily Mail: "If I am a fan I want to see the manager fighting for my club. I don't see this as a lack of respect for Chelsea's fans, just a manager defending his team."
He might not see it as being disrespectful, but the majority of Chelsea fans do. If he thinks that because he now has a lion on his chest instead of a phoenix that all of the derogatory comments he has made about the club and its fans are forgiven, then he is a few sandwiches, a basket, and a blanket short of a picnic.
Winning games, and consequently trophies, is lovely, but it's not the be-all and end-all when it comes to following a football club. Go to any game in League One or lower and you will find a few thousand fans who show up every week, despite their club's trophy cabinet containing nothing but cobwebs.
Football is a culture, and the different clubs have different styles. That's what creates the allegiances and divisions, not trophies.
Ultimately, and from whatever perspective, it looks very much like Abramovich has turned to Benitez to get Torres scoring again, to try to save some face over the size of his fee and subsequent failure to turn those pounds into points. Even if it is successful, and Torres goes on to score 20 goals between now and May, he will have cost the club far more than £50 million.
Chelsea regularly hear songs about how they have no history, but they do, 107 years of it. What they have shown this week is that they have no long-term thinking for the future, no loyalty and no class.
I will still support the team, but there is nothing that will make me see this whole saga as anything but a disgrace.
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