As tends to be the case with Chelsea, the club finds itself in a conundrum. If the dismissal of Roberto Di Matteo as manager in November wasn’t enough to cause a backlash from fans, replacing him—albeit on a temporary basis—with former Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez, has cranked up the pressure for them to succeed all the more this season.
But what defines success for a club in transition—a club that is attempting to change its football philosophy and move away from the methods that have proved so successful in the past?
How Chelsea followed up a first Champions League triumph in its history last season was always going to be a topic for debate. The Blues certainly set out their intent for a change of philosophy with the capture of talented stars such as Eden Hazard, Victor Moses and Brazilian midfielder Oscar last summer.
The early signs of this "new vision" were positive, too, as they topped the league table in the early stages of 2012/13, playing a brand of attacking football not overly associated with the club since the days of Peter Osgood and the like. But then came a dip in form in late October and as rumors of Di Matteo’s demise gathered pace, it soon resulted with the Italian being fired on Nov. 21.
Sure, results were not as encouraging as they had once been, but the general view among many was of a team moving in the right direction despite their loss of form.
Which brings us to the appointment of Benitez. Chelsea fans made no secret at their disapproval of his appointment given his chequered history with the club in his Liverpool days, and while calls for his removal may have subsided somewhat, the tension is still very much bubbling under the surface.
The Spaniard’s appointment has shifted the goal posts.
Under Di Matteo Chelsea fans may have accepted a season more defined by development than silverware in the hope of further glory in years to come.
With the Italian’s departure, the club now needs to show instant results to support Roman Abramovich's belief he was not the right man for the job.
The Club World Cup aside, Chelsea has that opportunity a little quicker than they may have thought with the Capital One Cup Final coming in February. They need to negotiate safe passage via Swansea City in the semifinal first, but the Blues are strong favorites. In the other half of the draw are Bradford City of League 2 and Aston Villa, a team the Blues ruthlessly put to the sword with an 8-0 victory over Christmas. Given what lays before them, Chelsea must win the trophy.
The result of the club’s previous managerial dismissals has invariably resulted in success. Following Jose Mourinho’s departure, Avram Grant took them to within an inch of lifting the Champions League as they lost out to Manchester United on penalties in 2008.
A year later, and after Luiz Felipe Scolari’s dismissal, Guus Hiddink would have got them back in the final were it not for some debatable refereeing decisions against Barcelona in the semis. Still, he finished the season puffing on a cigar and holding the FA Cup with a second-place finish in the league.
Then, there’s Di Matteo’s FA Cup and Champions League success last year when he replaced Andre Villas-Boas.
Matching Di Matteo's feat is an impossible task, but with the Capital One Cup, FA Cup and Europa League still to play for, let alone second place in the league, the Blues need a repeat of Hiddink’s exploits. Anything short of that and Chelsea could well live to rue the dismissal of Di Matteo for this season at least.