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Russian roulette

When Roman Abramovich first came to Britain looking to buy a football club, he chose a Manchester United game as he sought a prospective purchase.

Roman Abramovich is said to have paid out £86m to managers he has dismissed. Picture: Getty Images

After the match he was driven to the airport by Rio Ferdinand and his young step-brother as part of a charm offensive by the club.

On the flight back to London, the Russian billionaire looked out of his window, saw Stamford Bridge and decided he was going to buy Chelsea. Ferdinand, United and Sir Alex Ferguson spent most of the next decade battling against, rather than working with, him as the clubs jostled for dominance in the Premier League. United under Ferguson, history will record, have won five titles in that time, Chelsea three. They have had considerably more managers.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Roberto di Matteo's sacking by Chelsea yesterday was not the timing of it, but the fact that his 262-day tenure was not the shortest reign under Abramovich. Far from it, in fact. Andre Villas-Boas, Avram Grant and Luiz Felipe Scolari all spent less time at Stamford Bridge, barely getting their feet under the desk before being summoned to meet the owner and be told their time was up.

Rafael Benitez last night became the ninth manager of Abramovich's nine years in charge. The Spaniard presumably will take the details stipulated on his contract as a guideline rather than an indication of how long he should expect to stay in the post. Pep Guardiola will be back on the market in the summer following a year-long, post-Barcelona sabbatical and Benitez will be aware that Abramovich has designs on making him his successor.

If anything, Abramovich appears to be getting less patient the longer he remains at Chelsea. Claudio Ranieri, his first manager, was given almost four years before being let go, while his successor Jose Mourinho was in charge for more than three. Since then there have been a number of short-term appointments, some of which generated sufficient success to be worthy of an extension. Avram Grant was a missed penalty kick away from delivering the owner the Champions League win he craved, while Carlo Ancelotti won a league and FA Cup double. Di Matteo, of course, managed to win both the Champions League and FA Cup just two months after succeeding Villas-Boas but even that couldn't save him from the axe when results dipped.

The irony that managers are seemingly disposable to an owner who has stayed loyal to John Terry, the club captain found guilty of racial abuse, and Ashley Cole, who shot someone with an air rifle at the club's training ground, will not be lost on many.

Di Matteo's exit raises the obvious question: just what does Abramovich want from his managers? He seemed to have it all with Mourinho who arrived with a glittering reputation having just captured the European Cup for Porto and then helped bring about Chelsea's first league title in 50 years. The championship was retained, and those successes were supplemented with a number of domestic cup wins, but Mourinho could not bring the Champions League Abramovich had his heart set on. There were ongoing differences of opinion – hardly a surprise given the huge personalities involved – and a suggestion that the Russian wanted Mourinho to not only win, but to do so with greater panache.

It was a criticism similarly labelled at Villas-Boas and then di Matteo who took over from the Portuguese in March with Chelsea on the cusp of elimination from Europe. Di Matteo not only kept them in the competition but oversaw aggregate victories over Benfica, Barcelona and Bayern Munich to bring the European Cup to Stamford Bridge for the first time. There were grumbles about their ultra-defensive style of play, and the histrionics of Didier Drogba among others did not win them many fans, but that di Matteo achieved it all – and added the FA Cup – just two months after taking temporary charge was remarkable in itself.

Again, though, the accusation was of success without style. Whether as a reaction to that criticism or the first steps towards building a new empire, Chelsea spent heavily on flair players in the summer, adding Eden Hazard and Oscar (as well as Marko Marin who has yet to make an impact) to give them, alongside Juan Mata, one of the most exciting attacking midfield tridents in Europe. They started well but a run of just two wins from their last eight games has taken them to a point where qualification for the last 16 of the Champions League is no longer in their own hands. Despite being just four points off the top of the Barclays Premier League, that was enough to cost di Matteo his job.

It may just be that Abramovich is a man prone to whim, someone so used to getting his own way in the business world that he makes decisions first, then contemplates the ramifications later. He is said to have paid out £86m in compensation to sacked managers (not including di Matteo), demonstrating that money is not a factor in deciding whether his chosen figure in the dug-out stays or goes. Alternatively, he may feel that there is little point in prolonging a manager's tenure if things seem to be on the slide, believing a new man can add fresh vigour to a lifeless campaign. Chelsea got a bounce from the mid-season appointments of Grant, Hiddink and of course di Matteo, and there may be a feeling that Benitez (if chosen) will bring about something similar. The Spaniard probably shouldn't settle in for the long haul, though.

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