Unless José Mourinho can be tempted to return, Roman Abramovich is running out of willing, or available, candidates
Even if Rafael Benítez does limp on until May, it is becoming harder to see where Roman Abramovich goes from there. A man used to being able to secure whatever he covets is potentially running out of options. After 10 years, 10 managers and £1bn of investment, the turbulence associated with the top job at Stamford Bridge has made a post once coveted by many of the biggest names in European football into a poisoned chalice. Chelsea said yesterday it was "business as usual" as Benítez took training. That, perhaps, is the problem.
By most measures it should be an attractive proposition. Yet even the prospect of a hefty pay packet and the lure of working with some of the best players in the world has not been enough to stop some of the names highest on his wanted list removing themselves from the frame.
Despite the soothing mood music from Stamford Bridge, it is unwise to second guess anything in a court where the word of one man is king. Benítez looks likely to be in charge for Saturday's meeting with West Bromwich Albion, managed by the former Chelsea defender and assistant manager Steve Clarke, but beyond that all bets remain off. With the Spaniard just the latest "dead man walking", the Chelsea owner is left contemplating the next phase of a "project" that long since lost all coherence.
When Benítez was appointed, the prize of Pep Guardiola, long coveted for his marriage of style and silverware, still hovered tantalisingly within reach as the former Barcelona coach watched on from New York. Many speculated that by ruthlessly dispatching Roberto Di Matteo and highlighting the instability at the heart of the club, Abramovich had made west London an even less appealing destination for Guardiola. So it proved, as it emerged he had already pledged himself to Bayern Munich. Borussia Dortmund's highly rated Jürgen Klopp has also insisted he will not be lured by the Russian's siren call.
For the bookmakers José Mourinho is the clear favourite and the prospect has clear appeal, not least for fans and the media. But the dramatic return of the Special One from Madrid may create as many problems as it would solve. For better or worse, Abramovich appears wedded to a backroom model that leaves the likes of the technical director Michael Emenalo firmly in place. That would clash with a likely demand from the Portuguese for full control over football matters – the very flashpoint that ended his first successful tenure.
Mourhino knows there may be rival offers from Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain with more control and less baggage. On the other hand, those positions are not currently vacant and he may be drawn to the idea of being able to tie up his future before the end of the season.
Contrary to external impressions, there is some continuity at Chelsea. The assistant first-team coach, Steve Holland, has worked with a succession of managers and others have been there even longer. Away from the first team, the academy director Neil Bath has been on staff since well before Abramovich arrived.
The chairman, Bruce Buck, and the chief executive, Ron Gourlay, again under fire for their lack of visibility but aware whatever they say could be undermined at a stroke by their boss, would argue they are attempting to put in place a structure that can sustain personnel changes.
But it holds little water when there is so little sense to the expensive but incoherent collection of players bequeathed to the next man to take up the reins. Clubs can survive a high turnover, but only if there is a clear footballing and recruitment philosophy underpinning them. Both have been lacking at Chelsea.
Abramovich appears wedded to two paradoxical aims: to establish a structure that can withstand endless revolution, while craving the charismatic auteur who can repeat the success of Mourinho and also add a swashbuckling sense of adventure. The Russian may argue the trophy cabinet tells its own story, but the towering European triumph last May obscures diminishing returns. Of his four least successful managers, according to their win percentages, three are the most recent incumbents.
The daunting rebuilding task that was supposed to begin under André Villas-Boas, who will this weekend celebrate the anniversary of his sacking by hoping to cement the position of Spurs ahead of Chelsea in the table, has stalled. Didier Drogba is gone but not replaced and the rest of the spine of Mourinho's team has not been adequately overhauled. Questions over Frank Lampard's contract have proved an endless distraction and the squad lacks balance. A trio of exciting young players expensively signed to usher in a new era – Oscar, Eden Hazard and Juan Mata – have alternated between brilliance and bewilderment as chaos has swirled around them, while Fernando Torres increasingly resembles a lost cause.
Like other chaotic institutions, it is possible Abramovich will lurch from one extreme to the other and seek to replace a manager virulently unpopular with the fans with another who is a former hero. Gianfranco Zola would certainly tick that box. But although he has impressed at Watford, he struggled in the Premier League with West Ham.
Gus Poyet, who perhaps ranks less highly in the affections of Chelsea fans due to his stint at Spurs, is untested at the highest level but has shown himself to be a progressive young manager at Brighton. Both would be tempted by what would be a huge step up; both would be huge gambles.
But other highly rated young coaches – notably Swansea's Michael Laudrup – would now surely think twice about cashing in their rising stock to take the Abramovich shilling. David Moyes, who enjoys absolute control at Everton but is endlessly frustrated by a lack of resources, is an intriguing possibility but for him the knotty internal politics might be a deal breaker.
Chelsea have worked their way through many of the usual suspects who used to be mentioned whenever one of the bigger managerial jobs in Europe came up. But from that seam of speculation, two former Real Madrid managers – Fabio Capello and Manuel Pellegrini – might reasonably be considered. The former is in charge of Russia but has recently made noises about wanting to return to England. Pellegrini's agent said this week that the Chilean coach of Málaga would "love" to come to the Premier League and claimed Chelsea and others had been in touch to ask about his availability.
But neither would represent the new broom Abramovich would appear to crave to reshape a squad that badly needs a vision for the long term. Of course he could always go to the other extreme, take player power to its logical conclusion and install John Terry as manager.
When he was appointed, Benítez insisted the task before him was "easy when you have experience at this level: to win games, try to do it playing well, and win trophies". It's unlikely even he feels the same way now. His experience, like those who came before him, will be just the latest salutory tale to weigh on the minds of those weighing up the demands of one of football's most peculiarly challenging jobs.