How Chelsea sacked Roberto Di Matteo in 2012 - and replaced him with Rafael Benitez

Roberto Di Matteo won Chelsea their maiden Champions League trophy in May 2012, but found himself sacked by the club 6 months later.

Roberto Di Matteo during his final game in charge at Chelsea. (Image: Twitter)

Since 2003, Chelsea have been a dominant force in English and European football. However, they only won their first Champions League trophy in 2012. The man in charge at the time? Roberto Di Matteo.

It is a random answer to a trivia question: who was Chelsea’s manager when they first won the Champions League? It is all the more shocking given the likes of Jose Mourinho, Luiz Felipe Scolari and Carlo Ancelotti had failed to bring the club such success.

And it was even more amazing given the Italian – who also had a stellar spell as a player at Chelsea – was only in charge on an interim basis. However, he did the unthinkable by beating Bayern Munich in their own backyard.

He was then handed the job on a permanent basis. However, results took a downturn and he was sacked. Chelsea, it is worth remembering, were seen as a famously trigger-happy club at the time.

But this one felt different to the fans. It wasn’t just the sacking of a club legend; this was a club legend who gave fans the one trophy they’d long coveted.

To make things worse, his replacement was former Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez. The Spaniard was brought in on an interim basis till the end of the season.

However, his fractious relationship with the Stamford Bridge faithful made the 2012-13 season an absolute slog for both the club and fans.

The truth is, anyone replacing the beloved Di Matteo would have struggled. But a manager with ties to a club whom Chelsea had plenty of hostile clashes with at the time? Good luck making fans accept that decision.

And they never did. With exactly 9 years having passed since Di Matteo was sacked, let us look back at what was a tumultuous time for Chelsea.

The background

To understand just why fans hated the decision so much, it is worth looking back at the circumstances under which Roberto Di Matteo even got the job in the first place.

The 2011-12 season was turning into a miserable one for Chelsea. New manager Andre Villas-Boas was struggling to get results and even lost the dressing room.

His time at the job ended when Chelsea were battered 3-1 by Napoli in the Champions League Round of 16 first leg. Di Matteo was placed in temporary charge and tasked with turning the season around.

At the time, that would involve getting the team to win again and secure a Top 4 finish. Results under Di Matteo were decidedly mixed, and Chelsea ended the Premier League season in 6th.

However, the ageing side showed plenty of positive progress in the FA Cup and the Champions League. Not only did they overturn the deficit against Napoli, they then outlasted Benfica and Barcelona – the latter team by the skin of their teeth – to make the Champions League final.

And before that final, Di Matteo won the club the FA Cup with a 2-1 win over Liverpool in the final. That being said, the main focus was on the Champions League.

Chelsea had nothing to lose – they were massive underdogs against a dominant Bayern Munich, with the final set to be held in the Allianz Arena in Munich – Bayern’s home ground.

However, in an epic finale for the ages, Chelsea won the trophy on penalties. The video of Di Matteo telling club owner Roman Abramovich “I won it!” in gleeful fashion became a popular one.

Given what he had accomplished in his short time in charge, he was handed the job on a permanent basis over the summer on a two-year deal.

Time runs out quicker than expected for Roberto Di Matteo

His time at the helm of the club on a permanent basis, however, was a lot less stellar. Chelsea spent heavily in the transfer market after winning the Champions League. However, Di Matteo could not get the best out of his admittedly enviable cast of attacking talent.

Wins against lower and mid-table opposition (Reading, Newcastle, Wigan Athletic) were often followed by poor results against top sides. Chelsea lost the FA Community Shield 3-2 to Manchester City, but the most humilating loss came in the European Super Cup final to Atletico Madrid.

Radamel Falcao, then at the peak of his powers, ran roughshod as Chelsea lost 4-1 in an embarrassing loss. But the final straw came when Chelsea lost 3-0 to Juventus, leaving their chances of qualifying from their group in jeopardy.

That loss came on November 20, 2012. A day later Di Matteo was sacked – and Benitez was brought in. And the uproar from Chelsea fans did not cease till the end of the season.

Many felt Di Matteo deserved more time; others understood the decision, even if it hurt. But the club’s fanbase were united in their disdain of Benitez, who had antagonised them many times during his time at Liverpool.

For the remainder of the season, the Spaniard was greeted with chants of “Rafa out” from Chelsea fans. He did stabalise the team, leading them to a third-place finish and winning the Europa League.

However, even the Chelsea board knew appointing him permanently was not an option. It helped that they had a better option in hand – a returning Jose Mourinho.

The aftermath

Chelsea then tasted some success with Mourinho, before he left in 2016. Benitez too would manage a string of clubs, including Real Madrid and Newcastle United.

Di Matteo, however, never really recovered. He was paid by the club for the course of his contract because the sides did not come to an agreement over a settlement. But his subsequent two jobs did not end well.

His time at German club Schalke 04 lasted less than a whole season, as he joined in October 2014 and resigned in the summer. His time at Aston Villa was arguably worse.

He was appointed in June 2016 but out of a job by October after a bunch of poor results. And he hasn’t returned to the managerial dugout since.

Still, he’ll always have that night in Munich. As will the Chelsea fans.

Sportslumo Desk

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