Chelsea hires Benitez as interim manager

STEVE DOUGLAS AP Sports Writer Published:

LONDON (AP) -- Chelsea surprisingly brought Rafael Benitez out of the coaching wilderness on Wednesday, hiring the Spaniard in an interim role after mercilessly firing the man who guided the club to its first Champions League title just six months ago.

Benitez agreed to a contract with the European champions until the end of the season, nearly two years after being fired by Inter Milan in his last coaching position. He filled the vacancy created by Roberto Di Matteo's sudden departure earlier in the day following the team's dip in form over the past month.

Tuesday's 3-0 loss to Juventus proved to be Di Matteo's final match in charge, the result in Turin leaving Chelsea third in its Champions League group and in danger of becoming the first holders to fail to reach the knockout stage.

"I am extremely proud of the successes and trophies that we were able to bring to the club in recent months," said Di Matteo, who also won the FA Cup last season during his spell as interim coach before being taken on full-time in June.

"Lifting Chelsea's first Champions League trophy, in Munich, was the best achievement in club history and without doubt the highlight of my career to date, both as a player and manager. It is a memory I will treasure for the rest of my life."

Di Matteo's exit was another demonstration of the ruthlessness of Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, who is up to his ninth manager since buying the club in 2003.

The 52-year-old Benitez comes with experience, having also been in charge of Valencia and Liverpool -- the club where he won the Champions League in 2005 and took it to the 2007 final. Chelsea fans will be concerned about Benitez's record at Inter, where he lasted barely six months, and also his style of play, which is widely regarded as defensive.

"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.

Benitez was flying to London from Abu Dhabi on Wednesday and will meet the squad for the first time at the club's training ground on Thursday. His first match in charge will be in the Premier League on Sunday at home to Manchester City, the reigning champion and unbeaten leader.

Chelsea has dropped to third place in the standings after picking up just two points from its past four matches -- a record that, dovetailed with Chelsea's disappointing defense of its European title, left Di Matteo exposed.

Given Abramovich's history of hastily firing managers, there was a certain inevitability about Di Matteo's demise, even though the Swiss-born Italian was awarded a two-year contract only about four months ago.

Di Matteo was told by chairman Bruce Buck and chief executive Ron Gourlay that he had been fired at a 4 a.m. meeting on Wednesday at the club's training ground, soon after landing back in England following a flight from Turin. He is believed to have already said farewell to his players in the dressing room after the loss to Juventus.

"Wow, Chelsea have sacked their manager!! ... its a madness," Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand said on Twitter.

Andre Villas-Boas, who was fired by Chelsea to give Di Matteo a chance to manage his former club, described Wednesday's goings-on at the west London club as "just another day at the office".

"That's football," said Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho, another to have been jettisoned by Abramovich. "I'm never happy when a manager is sacked. It can happen to me and is a feeling that no one likes to have."

Chelsea was in disarray when Di Matteo, then an assistant coach, took over from Villas-Boas in March. The former Italy midfielder brought together squabbling factions within the squad and led the team to the club's seventh FA Cup title by beating Liverpool in the final and then a first Champions League trophy, defeating Barcelona in the semifinals then Bayern at the German club's home ground.

Di Matteo, with his typical coolness, has also been praised for the way he handled a racism case involving John Terry that engulfed the club. Chelsea is in the middle of another racism incident, having accused a Premier League referee of abusing one of its players.

"It's been a difficult day," Chelsea playmaker Juan Mata said on his Facebook page. "I would like to thank him for all this time with us and wish him the best of luck for the future."

In the Premier League, Chelsea had been leading for much of the season but trails Manchester City and Manchester United in the title race.

The team is third in Group E of the Champions League behind Shakhtar Donetsk and Juventus with one match left. The Blues next face Danish club FC Nordsjaelland, but they will be eliminated even if they win if Juventus earns a point in Ukraine.

In Benitez's favor is his experience and close relationship with Fernando Torres from their time together at Anfield. Getting the best out of Torres could be crucial to pleasing Abramovich, who signed the Spain striker for 50 million pounds ($81 million) in January 2011.

Hiring Benitez is a risk, however, given his trademark defensive approach. Abramovich is widely known to prefer a more attractive style, as demonstrated by spending a combined reported 70 million pounds ($110 million) on attackers Oscar, Eden Hazard, Marko Marin and Victor Moses in the offseason.

For that reason, Benitez's appointment may just be a stop-gap measure to give Abramovich more time to lure the man widely believed to be his first choice as coach, Pep Guardiola.

Guardiola is on a one-year sabbatical after leaving Barcelona at the end of last season and may yet replace Benitez in the offseason.