Roberto di Matteo did virtually everything he could to demonstrate that he was the right man to lead Chelsea. Unfortunately, none of his accomplishments convinced the board that his place at the helm was anything more than an accident.
You can see most things coming from miles away, even in football. And we should have seen this too. The media were starting to push the line of there being serious pressure on Roberto di Matteo, but absolutely zero sensible football analysts, in Chelsea circles or elsewhere, thought that this was particularly likely. One 3-0 embarrassment in Turin later, and the Italian's gotten the boot.
One the one hand, this is utterly, utterly bizarre. Di Matteo led the team to its first ever Champions League win barely six months ago, having beaten Liverpool in the FA Cup final before that. And now he's been unceremoniously discarded after a few weeks of poor form -- in the club statement announcing his release, Chelsea allotted a grand total of 61 words to his historic achievements in the short time since Andre Villas-Boas got the sack:
The owner and the Board would like to thank Roberto for all he has done for the club since taking over in March. Roberto helped guide us to an historic Champions League victory and a seventh FA Cup. We will never forget the huge contribution he has made to this club's history and he will always be welcome at Stamford Bridge.
Some time ago, I remember being asked about what I thought of the idea of Gianfranco Zola coming in as Chelsea manager. He's too much of a legend, I replied. Eventually it would go wrong and seeing my boyhood idol sacked would hurt too much for it to be anything near worth it to bring him home.
And so it is with di Matteo, albeit to a lesser extent. This isn't some mercenary manager -- an Andre Villas-Boas or a Guus Hiddink or even a Carlo Ancelotti. This was Roberto di Matteo, hero of Wembley. The Swiss-born Italian played 119 times for us before his career was cut short by injury, and although he wasn't the iconic figure that Zola was, he was very much part of the fabric of the club.
I don't see a way this will ever not hurt to look back on. We're used to firing managers, and we did pretty well by it last time. But we've not ever done this to someone who was embedded within the soul of the club itself. Di Matteo was one of us. That he'd won two major trophies -- including the major trophy -- during his short time at Stamford Bridge was delicious icing on an already beloved cake.
And now he's out. I won't pretend as though I didn't see grave tactical problems with di Matteo's side: His teams have never struck the correct chord between attack and defence, despite having the personnel to pull off both. But he was also put in a bizarre position by the club's actions over the summer.
First, there was the extended chase of Pep Guardiola, leaving di Matteo in the dark weeks after he'd pulled off the finest result in the club's history. Eventually, the interim manager was appointed on a permanent basis, but even then it was clear that he was second best. Then came the curious neglect of two key positions in the transfer window.
Heavy reinforcements were brought in by Director of Football Michael Emenalo -- Eden Hazard and Oscar, two of the club's best players, arrived this summer, and we got the backup fullback and the dedicated wide player we all wanted on top of that. But there was no backup arriving at centre forward or central midfield, two crucial and very weak positions. Instead, there were departures.
Didier Drogba left. Salomon Kalou left. Romelu Lukaku was loaned to West Bromwich Albion. Raul Meireles was sold to Fenerbahce. Michael Essien was loaned to Real Madrid. This left di Matteo in a bizarre situation -- he was forced to play one of Fernando Torres and Daniel Sturridge up top, two players so obviously flawed that it can be physically painful to watch them at work. And in the midfield, Frank Lampard's injury means a John Obi Mikel-Ramires pivot that looks decent on paper but has coincided with the team's organisational meltdown.
In a sense, then, di Matteo's the fall guy for structural failures elsewhere. That's not to say he didn't compound the problem with some of his decisions, or that his players didn't fail to perform when they should have, but the issues we were going to face were clear from the start. But that's the manager's job in this club: A very well-compensated fall-guy.
Di Matteo will be fine. He's being paid well, and Chelsea managers haven't exactly been unsuccessful after leaving the Bridge. Sacking him isn't 'classless' -- he served at Roman Abramovich's pleasure and the owner had, obviously, reached the end of his rope. But unless there's an ace somewhere up Roman's sleeve, it does seem like poor decision making.
What does firing di Matteo achieve, exactly? We're looking at a man with the same general tactical problems as Andre Villas-Boas without the dogmatism, annoying demeanour and ability to poison the dressing room atmosphere. When Villas-Boas went away, so too did the dressing room problems, allowing the players to regroup. It's difficult to see the same sort of bounceback effect happening this time around.
Who'll be the next to take the reigns? Chelsea "will be making an announcement shortly regarding a new first team manager", which could mean virtually anything. Right now, the money's on Rafael Benitez on the short term, followed by a long spell of Pep Guardiola. Make of that what you will.
But here's the truth behind di Matteo's time at the helm: He wasn't the manager that the club's leadership wanted, but he fell into their collective laps and became impossible to get rid of. A blip like this month wouldn't have cost Ancelotti, Villas-Boas or even Luiz Scolari their jobs. But they weren't assistant managers promoted from within, like di Matteo was. And that, ultimately, is why not even a Champions League title could save him.