Chelsea hired former Liverpool coach Rafael Benitez as interim soccer manager until the end of the season after firing Roberto Di Matteo, an appointment that may pave the way for an approach to Pep Guardiola.
Di Matteo, 42, was fired yesterday after a 3-0 loss at Juventus that left the Blues on the brink of elimination from the Champions League, a competition they won in May. Benitez was last night appointed as Chelsea’s ninth coach since Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich bought the London team in 2003.
“The owner 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,” Chelsea said in a statement on its website.
Benitez, 52, twice led Liverpool to the Champions League final, winning Europe’s elite club competition in 2005, a year after guiding Valencia to victory in the second-tier UEFA Cup.
The Spaniard last coached at Inter Milan, where he was fired in 2010 after just six months. He told The National newspaper in Abu Dhabi, where he was speaking at a coaching seminar yesterday, that he was waiting for the right challenge to return to management.
“I am looking for a club that can challenge for trophies, so Chelsea is one of those clubs,” Benitez was cited as saying.
Di Matteo won the Champions League and F.A. Cup titles last season. The Blues’ recent performances “have not been good enough” and the board felt a change was necessary, Chelsea said in a statement on its website earlier yesterday.
Chelsea is third in Champions League Group E behind Juventus with one game remaining. It must beat Nordsjaelland and have Shakhtar Donetsk defeat Juventus to avoid becoming the first titleholder to exit at the group stage. The Blues, who are in third place in the Premier League, have won two of their last eight matches in all competitions.
Chelsea beat Bayern Munich on penalty kicks on May 19 to become the first London club to win the European Cup. Di Matteo, a former Chelsea and Italy midfielder, oversaw the victory as interim manager after replacing Andre Villas-Boas in March.
The Blues then took their fourth F.A. Cup title in six seasons with a 2-1 win against Liverpool in the final and Di Matteo’s appointment was made permanent in June.
“We will never forget the huge contribution he has made to this club’s history and he will always be welcome” at Stamford Bridge stadium, said the statement from Chelsea.
Di Matteo’s tenure lasted longer than those of Villas-Boas, Avram Grant and Luiz Felipe Scolari. In the team’s first 70 years, it had eight coaches. Di Matteo was the seventh coach hired by Abramovich since 2004, when Claudio Ranieri was fired.
Benitez spent six seasons at Liverpool and also won the F.A. Cup in 2006. However, he failed to capture the English league championship for the Reds, who haven’t secured the title since 1990, and left in June 2010.
He was hired a week later at Inter Milan to replace Jose Mourinho, who left for Real Madrid after winning the Champions League, Serie A and Italian Cup titles. Though he guided Inter to victory at the FIFA Club World Cup, Benitez won just six of 15 league matches and was fired with the club in seventh place.
In appointing Benitez on an interim basis until the end of the season, Chelsea is keeping its options open amid U.K. media reports that former Barcelona manager Guardiola, 41, is Abramovich’s preferred choice to take the job permanently.
Guardiola is midway through a sabbatical, having left Barcelona in April. He guided the Catalan club to 14 trophies in four years, including two Champions League titles and three Spanish championships.
Although he has given Chelsea hints that he wants the job, Guardiola has made it clear he doesn’t want to take a new position before the start of next season, the Daily Mail reported two days ago.
Chelsea was leading the Premier League after winning seven of the first eight matches this season, yet has slipped four points off first place after recent games. The Blues host leader and defending champion Manchester City in three days.