A club under fire

Going through one of its worst phases in recent times, Chelsea’s public profile takes a severe beating. By Brian Glanville.

Booted out of the European Champions League at Juventus, infuriating their fans, the predictable sacking of Roberto Di Matteo and appointing Rafa Benitez, an ex-Liverpool manager detested for his past anti-Chelsea strictures, and assailed for their gratuitous attempt to accuse referee Mark Clattenburg of racist abuse. Chelsea’s public profile has surely never been lower.

The club’s billionaire oligarch owner, Roman Abramovich, who has seen so many managers come and go, is hardly in the category of the notorious Jesus Gil Y Gil, who ate managers for breakfast, but his record of impatience and interference makes the life of any Chelsea manager a dubious one.

That Di Matteo should be dismissed after the collapse in Turin against Juventus was utterly inevitable. What chance did he ever have, even after his sensational success in last season’s Champions League? That was a victory dependent on sheer attrition on massed defence and sudden counter-attack itself deeply dependent on the power and pace up front of Didier Drogba. But Drogba, ineptly and irreplaceably, was allowed to slip away to Shanghai for nothing, when the award of a two-year rather than the offered one-year contract could have kept him.

But Fernando Torres stayed. Oh yes, Torres stayed, despite his sad fallibility up front, his failure to score goals, the very parody of a player supposedly worth the absurd GBP 50 million which was paid for him. Surpassing by GBP 20 million what previously had seemed the ultimate folly of paying GBP 30 million for Andrei Shevchenko, who was so manifestly past his best. All down to the decisions of Abramovich, who even sacked as successful — if continually controversial — a manager as Jose Mourinho because, apparently, his tactics were insufficiently positive for the Chelsea owner.

Abramovich plainly never wanted Di Matteo, denying him for months even the title of manager when, last season, he took over a failing team and took them past Napoli, mighty Barcelona and in the Champions League final Bayern Munich, beaten against all the odds on their own ground.

But for Di Matteo the writing was all too clearly on the wall last summer when Abramovich, who, to be fair, certainly saved the club when it was sliding into penury, imposed a summer transfer policy to bring in the costly likes of Eden Hazard, the elegant Belgian, and the gifted Brazilian, Oscar. Attractive, even decorative, players indeed, but, as one saw all too clearly in Turin, too lightweight to make any impact on the muscular Juve defence. With Sturridge, who at least had some physical presence, injured, there was only Torres ultimately to turn to: the equivalent surely of running up the white flag.

In any case, it was all too well known that for Abramovich, Di Matteo was simply keeping the managerial seat warm for Pep Guardiola. In his dreams, you might say. What Abramovich wants, plainly, is a Chelsea that plays football like Barcelona and that is truly just a dream indeed. Failing a magic wand, neither Guardiola nor anybody else could transform Chelsea into a Barcelona, whose dazzling style and supreme inventions are the product of years of schooling youngsters in the close passing, technically adroit style of the club.

Benitez’s contract runs only till the end of the season, when Abramovich plainly hopes to lure Guardiola, now on a season’s sabbatical in New York, to Stamford Bridge. Though in the meantime it is suggested that Abramovich hopes that Benitez could raise Torres, who once played so well for him at Liverpool, from the walking dead. But Benitez will be no better off than poor Di Matteo with the squad he now inherits; and which, as in Turin, missed the essential defensive presence of John Terry, currently injured. You could hardly blame Abramovich for that, though.

But he could surely have done something to restrain Chelsea from making an appalling exhibition of themselves over the horrid Mark Clattenburg affair. Behind the club’s deplorable, unapologetic behaviour, one suspects, was their wish to distance themselves as far as possible from the John Terry affair. The former Chelsea captain, though seemingly exonerated in the Westminster Magistrate’s Court, was then charged and furiously denounced by a Football Association which found him guilty of racist abuse, and which sharply criticised the intervention of a senior executive, who had made a clumsy effort to defend the behaviour of the left back, Ashley Cole, whose evidence was implausibly defended.

After Chelsea had played Manchester United at The Bridge, Clattenburg, the referee, was accused by Chelsea of calling their Nigerian midfielder, John Mikel Obi, a monkey. Mikel hadn’t heard the words himself; the only witness was the Brazilian international Ramires, standing nearby, whose English is said to be sketchy. But an infuriated Mikel tried to storm the referee in his dressing room and has been punished accordingly.

A long, somewhat incoherent defence of the club’s behaviour was made before the FA verdict by the American lawyer Bruce Buck, a senior figure under Abramovich, a pleasant man with no obvious background in football. But the FA would have none of it and completely exonerated Clattenburg, who said it had all been a nightmare. Surely a gratuitous one.