Rafa Benítez the latest to walk Chelsea tightrope without a safety net

Roman Abramovich, the owner, appears to have an entirely different notion of a manager's significance

Chelsea were once a music hall joke. Now they are more of a running gag. The only surprising thing about Roman Abramovich's dismissal of his latest manager, Roberto Di Matteo, this week was that anybody should be surprised.

True Di Matteo had fulfilled the Russian owner's dream six months earlier by leading Chelsea to success in the Champions League but under Roman's law winning honours merely guarantees a manager's departure sooner rather than later. Describing the latest incumbent, Rafael Benítez, as an interim appointment is surely tautologous since no manager under Abramovich has stayed in the job long enough to regard the position as permanent, although José Mourinho did last a whole three years.

Di Matteo is the ninth to leave during the oligarch's nine years in charge and only one of those, Guus Hiddink, went of his own accord. Thus it is tempting to draw a parallel with Jesús Gil who, during his 16 years as president of Atlético Madrid, treated coaches like disposable tissues.

This, however, would be less than fair to Abramovich. Gil had to wait nine years before one of his many appointments, Raddy Antic, brought Atlético their first Spanish league title in 19 years whereas Abramovich's Chelsea had won the Premier League three times, the FA Cup four times and the League Cup twice before last season's Champions League triumph. Their supporters must be grateful for that.

Abramovich appears to have an entirely different notion of what a manager's significance and status should be. For most of those in the game the ideal manager gives a club not only success but stability and continuity and the longer he stays the better. Manchester United and Arsenal have the prime examples in Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger, with Everton's David Moyes not far behind.

Chelsea's owner, however, appears to view the manager much as a theatrical impresario regards the director of the latest production. He is there for as long as the show runs and once the run ends it is someone else's turn. Di Matteo might as well have quit once Didier Drogba's penalty won the shootout against Bayern Munich in the Champions League final, payoff or no payoff.

Maybe Di Matteo's decision to drop Fernando Torres for Tuesday's game against Juventus in Turin, when a 3-0 defeat left the European champions on the brink of an early departure from this season's tournament, was the last straw for Abramovich. The misfiring Spanish striker, like Citizen Kane's dodgy diva, has become an embarrassment. Chelsea's attack is pining for the departed Drogba, whose return on loan would have been the ultimate irony seeing that it was he who did more than anyone to make Di Matteo something more than a caretaker.

Yet Chelsea's recent poor run of form has less to do with Torres's paucity of goals than serious leakages in their defence, which have not been helped by the loss of the injured John Terry for a few weeks. Terry has not only been the binding force at the back but is a major strength in the group of senior players who have carried the team through under a succession of managers.

Di Matteo's predecessor, André Villas‑Boas, was supposedly brought in to reorganise Chelsea as players such as Terry, Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard approached their sell-by dates but left amid reports of discontent in the ageing ranks. Originally Di Matteo was there to mend fences. Trouble was he also made a bit of history.

It is hard to see how Pep Guardiola, Abramovich's real target, can fit into this confused scenario. Guardiola's reputation with Barcelona was earned by his patient development of one of the most accomplished teams the world has ever seen, which took rather more time than Abramovich's appointments at Chelsea have been allowed so far. Why take a year out of the game to rest mind and body in order to walk a tightrope without a safety net at Stamford Bridge?

Presumably Benítez has been brought in because he was available, very available! Well he did take Liverpool to two Champions League finals, winning one of them, but he also oversaw the departure of Xabi Alonso, from which Anfield has never fully recovered.

Has Abramovich considered rehiring Mourinho? The return of the Special One would make the Second Coming a bit of an anticlimax but at least Chelsea would know what they were getting.

Perhaps that's the problem.

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