Of football stars and Russian czars - The story of Chelsea
Russia is known for a lot of things; vodka, Leo Tolstoy, caviar, and drop-dead gorgeous female athletes; a few of them anyway. It is also known for its unforgiving weather, a sharp coldness that is somehow embodied in its millionaire football club owner Roman Abramovich.
The 46-year old oil magnate’s entry into the world of European football symbolised the start of numerous things, among them the rise of Chelsea as a global superpower, thanks in no small measures to his generous funding in the upwards of hundreds of millions of pounds. Abramovich was also a trendsetter, with his takeover of the Blues giving rise to the now incredulous number of wealthy football club owners, who before football’s monetary revolution probably did not know where to drown their endless wads of cash.
However, the one thing Abramovich has not been in his time at the Bridge is relenting towards his managers, a trait easily inferred given the number of names that have come and gone over the Russian’s nine years at Stamford Bridge.
The latest in his list of casualties was Italian boss Roberto di Matteo, who on Wednesday was unceremoniously expelled just months after delivering his Russian employer his ‘Holy Grail’; the first Champions League trophy in their history.
However, while many fans would state their shock at losing the man who was hailed in West London as a messiah only months back, there was an eerie sense of inevitability about Di Matteo’s departure, a feeling that the decision had been coming. Chelsea’s oft-used executioner’s blade was being sharpened over the last month as the Blues slumped in the Premier League and in Europe, their sudden loss of form more jarring given their breathtaking start to the season. The decision finally came after a disappointing loss against an Italian team on the road, almost the exact same premise when former manager Andre Villas-Boas was sacked earlier in the year (Napoli, anyone?), handing Di Matteo the job in the first place.
Many would say that Abramovich was always out to get Di Matteo. The Russian was probably forced to keep him on after his exploits of last season, seeing no explicable way of relinquishing the duties of the man who had mended fractious relations between players and the management in a matter of months, along with it delivering in the biggest club competition in the world.
“Robbie has been fantastic since he came in. The owner has pumped an awful lot of money into this football club. Tonight we’ve won the Champions League and Robbie deserves a lot of credit for that.
“We hope (he gets the contract). He’s been fantastic. He can’t do any more than he’s done. To win the FA Cup and the Champions League, he can’t do more than that.”
Roman, however, like a cold-blooded Russian assassin in a Bond movie, waited for a chance to boot out the manager he never wanted.
Given a plethora of new, young talent during the summer, Di Matteo set to work in his attempts to transform Chelsea into a side more easy on the eye, a demand straight from the Russian oligarch that Di Matteo knew he had to service to have any chances of staying on at the club. And transform he did, as the club’s gallant defensive performances from last season were pumped with a whole lot more flair. The success of his newly-formed Holy Trinity covered for the continued ineptitude of a certain Spaniard, who, despite his massive price-tag, kept shirking from his responsibilities as the side’s attacking fulcrum. Chelsea went on to win seven out of the season’s first eight games, but there were still no assurances yet.
Di Matteo’s failure was his inability to find a balance between the newfound flair and the Catenaccio of the past, a situation that was very blatantly put to light by John Obi Mikel after the Juventus loss.
“I think the way we play sometimes, we’re very good going forward, but when you lose the ball you need to defend, and you can’t do that with six men, you need it to be the whole team. It has to be the team, and that is how we were successful last year.
“People say we didn’t play attractive football, yes, but we won trophies. This year we want to play attractive football, and this is what we get. We don’t want to be a team that plays attractive football and doesn’t win games.
“We have to have that [foundation]. This has been the way we play. This is the way Chelsea play: we are very tough physically, we are very tough when we lose the ball. Now we just don’t seem to do that and it is very easy [for other teams]. When we don’t have the ball now it’s a nightmare.”
Abramovich’s blunt refusal to be patient has paid rich dividends for the club in the past, which possibly further fuelled the Russian’s desire to pull the plug on yet another fledgling Chelsea managerial tenure. Avram Grant’s ascendancy from Director of Football to manager after Jose Mourinho’s exit ‘by mutual consent’ helped the club rise from the doldrums in 2008 and end as runners-up in the Premier League, the League Cup and the Champions League.
Guus Hiddink’s arrival the following year after Luis Filipe Scolari’s sacking helped the club win the FA Cup, with the side failing to reach a second straight Champions League final thanks to the performance of a certain Tom Henning Ovrebo.
Chelsea have for long been running a vicious circle which has seen managers enjoy temporary success, but soon enough get the axe after failing to quench Abramovich’s desire for ‘sexy football’. In comes Rafa Benitez, and with it a new hope; but a betting man would not put his dough on the Spaniard’s continuous presence at Stamford Bridge, even if the club lifted the Premier League come May.
Di Matteo probably knew that the day was coming. He was not one with the aura of a Mourinho, or the experience of an Ancelotti. Neither of those two were spared the axe. Why would he?
Di Matteo was not the right man for Abramovich, even if he was indeed the right man for Chelsea.