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Guard' duty for Benitez

ROMAN ABRAMOVICH risked a backlash from supporters and six months of intrigue by appointing Rafael Benitez as interim manager until the end of the season, leaving the way clear for the appointment of Pep Guardiola in the summer.

The former Liverpool manager was set to start work at Chelsea today after being installed as the short-term successor to Roberto Di Matteo in perhaps the most remarkable appointment of Abramovich's nine-year reign at Stamford Bridge.

Benitez, who established himself as a hate figure at Stamford Bridge during six seasons at Anfield marked by intense rivalry between the clubs, boarded a flight in Abu Dhabi last night having agreed the deal, and was set to meet the Chelsea squad at Cobham this morning.

The appointment, which was greeted with vocal objections from Chelsea supporters groups, comes after Abramovich tried and failed to persuade Guardiola to cut short his one-year sabbatical. Guardiola is enjoying a break from the game in New York.

Instead Abramovich turned to Benitez, already selected as his fallback position, to try to steady Chelsea's recent wobble and ensure that the club do not miss out on Champions League football next season.

Six months and a day after he led Chelsea to the Champions League in Munich, Di Matteo cleared his desk at Cobham at 4am yesterday after being informed by chairman Bruce Buck and chief executive Ron Gourlay that Abramovich's patience had run out.

Di Matteo, who won the Champions League and FA Cup in eight months in charge, is expected to continue receiving his salary until he takes a new job, stretching Chelsea's compensation to the eight managers sacked in Abramovich's nine-year tenure to more than £70million. Around 16 hours after Di Matteo was fired Chelsea confirmed the interim appointment of Benitez, who had to accept the job on less favourable terms than he had hoped in order to return to top-flight Premier League management.

The Spaniard, who won the Spanish League twice and the Uefa Cup with Valencia, and took Liverpool to their fifth European Cup, had sought a longer deal but was told that an agreement until the end of the season was the best that he could expect. Two years after he left his last job at Inter Milan he accepted.


Negotiations took place with Benitez on a working trip to the Middle East, and after agreeing the basic structure of the deal he boarded a plane in Abu Dhabi last night to return to London. The appointment promises to add a fascinating new dynamic to Chelsea, and returns one of the Premier League's most distinctive and divisive managers to front-line duty.

As Di Matteo, Andre Villas-Boas and even the hugely experienced Carlo Ancelotti found to their cost, the internal politics of Stamford Bridge under Abramovich can make life hugely challenging. "At Chelsea, I think another sacking is just like any other day at the office," Villas-Boas said yesterday.

But Benitez is a coach who craves complete control and, with six months to prove himself to Abramovich, he is unlikely to accept the limited role that Di Matteo selected as his most likely route to longevity. His first priority must be to stiffen Chelsea defensively, as well as trying to draw the best from Fernando Torres, a player he brought to Liverpool for the most successful period of the Spaniard's time in England. Torres's failure, despite a £50m price tag culminated this week in his being dropped by Di Matteo on Tuesday, and restoring the player's confidence may be a factor in Benitez's appointment.

The selection of a coach whose tactical approach, while successful at the highest level in Europe, does not always provide the free-flowing game Abramovich craves, indicates the Russian's priorities. Plainly he wants a proven coach to deliver a top-four finish, and may sacrifice his desire for entertainment to ensure that.

Chelsea said in a statement: "Chelsea Football Club can confirm Rafael Benitez has been appointed interim first-team manager until the end of the season. The owner and the board believe that in Benitez we have a manager with significant experience at the highest level of football, who can come in and immediately help deliver our objectives."

Benitez will start the job with the visit of champions Manchester City to Stamford Bridge on Sunday. With two points from the last four league matches, the owner will be anticipating an immediate dividend.

Benitez may also soon be working with Didier Drogba, who has sought Fifa's permission for a loan from Shanghai to allow him to get fit for the Africa Cup of Nations, which starts in January. One suggestion is that he could play for Chelsea, before leaving for the tournament on January 5.

Juan Mata was the first Chelsea player to recognise Di Matteo's contribution. "It's been a difficult day," he said. "I would like to thank him and wish him the best of luck for the future."