Posted: Wednesday November 21, 2012 3:22 PM

Chelsea hires Benitez as interim manager

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LONDON (AP) -Chelsea surprisingly brought Rafael Benitez out of the coaching wilderness on Wednesday by hiring the Spaniard in an interim role after mercilessly firing the man who guided the club to its first Champions League title.

Benitez agreed a short-term contract with the European champions until the end of the season, nearly two years after being fired by Inter Milan in his last coaching role. He was previously in charge of Valencia and Liverpool, the club where he won the Champions League in 2005 and took it to the 2007 final.

The 52-year-old Benitez becomes the ninth manager under Chelsea's Russian owner, Roman Abramovich, who displayed his trademark ruthlessness by cutting Roberto Di Matteo only six months after the Italian led the team to victory in the Champions League final over Bayern Munich.

The 3-0 loss to Juventus on Tuesday proved to be Di Matteo's final match in charge, with the result in Turin leaving Chelsea in danger of becoming the first reigning champion to fail to reach the knockout stage.

Chelsea has also dropped to third place in the Premier League after picking up just two points from its past four matches.

"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,'' Chelsea said in a statement.

Benitez was flying to London from Abu Dhabi on Wednesday and will meet the squad for the first time at the club's training ground on Thursday. His first match in charge will be in the league on Sunday at home to Manchester City, the reigning champions and current unbeaten leaders.

Pep Guardiola, currently on a one-year sabbatical after leaving Barcelona at the end of last season, had also been linked with the post and could yet replace Benitez in the offseason.

Given Abramovich's history of hastily firing managers, there was a certain inevitability about Di Matteo's demise, even though the Swiss-born Italian was only awarded a two-year contract in June after an impressive spell as caretaker coach in which he also led Chelsea to the FA Cup title.

Di Matteo was told by chairman Bruce Buck and chief executive Ron Gourlay that he had been fired at a 4 a.m. meeting Wednesday at the training ground, soon after landing back in England following a flight from Turin.

He is believed to have already said farewell to his players in the dressing room after the loss to Juventus.

"Wow, Chelsea have sacked their manager!! ... its a madness,'' Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand said on Twitter.

Chelsea was in disarray when Di Matteo, then an assistant coach, took over from the fired Andre Villas-Boas in March. The former Italy midfielder brought together squabbling factions within the squad and led the team to the club's seventh FA Cup title by beating Liverpool in the final and then a first Champions League trophy, defeating Barcelona in the semifinals and then Bayern at the German club's home ground.

Di Matteo, with his typical coolness, has also been praised for the way he handled a racism case involving John Terry that engulfed the club. Chelsea is in the middle of another racism incident, having accused a Premier League referee of abusing one of its players.

"It's been a difficult day,'' Chelsea playmaker Juan Mata said on his Facebook page. "I would like to thank him for all this time with us and wish him the best of luck for the future.''

In the Premier League, Chelsea had been leading for much of the season but now trails Manchester City and Manchester United in the title race.

The team is third in Group E of the Champions League behind Shakhtar Donetsk and Juventus with one match left. The Blues next face Danish club FC Nordsjaelland, but they will be eliminated even if they win if Juventus earns a point in Ukraine.

In Benitez's favor is his experience and close relationship with Fernando Torres from their time together at Anfield. Getting the best out of Torres could be crucial to pleasing Abramovich, who signed the Spain striker for 50 million pounds ($81 million) in January 2011.

Hiring Benitez is a risk, however, given his trademark defensive approach. Abramovich is widely known to prefer a more attractive style, as demonstrated by spending a combined reported 70 million pounds ($110 million) on attackers Oscar, Eden Hazard, Marko Marin and Victor Moses in the offseason.

 
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