LONDON, England, March 5 – Roman Abramovich could be set to make his peace with Jose Mourinho after the former Chelsea boss was installed among the favourites to take charge at Stamford Bridge next season following Andre Villas-Boas’s dismissal.
Abramovich axed Villas-Boas on Sunday less than 24 hours after a 1-0 defeat at West Bromwich Albion left the Blues languishing in fifth place in the Premier League.
Former Chelsea midfielder Roberto Di Matteo, who had been working as Villas-Boas’s assistant, has been named as interim manager until the end of the season.
Di Matteo will hope to avoid an embarrassing FA Cup fifth round replay exit against Championship club Birmingham when his side travel to St Andrews’ for his first match in charge on Tuesday.
After that the Italian will focus on lifting Chelsea back into the top four — thus securing a place in next season’s Champions League — and maybe even overturn the 3-1 first leg deficit against Napoli in the last 16 of the Champions League.
But the real intrigue at Chelsea now surrounds Abramovich’s search for an eighth manager in his eight years as owner of the west London club.
Since buying Chelsea in 2003, Abramovich has dismissed Claudio Ranieri, Mourinho, Avram Grant, Luiz Felipe Scolari, Carlo Ancelotti and now Villas-Boas.
Matching Abramovich’s demand for success with style increasingly seems like an impossible job, but the only man who has come close to achieving that daunting task seems likely to be back on the market for a club by the end of the season.
Real Madrid boss Mourinho has led his club to the top of La Liga despite fierce competition from Barcelona.
Yet Mourinho feels unloved in Spain after troubled relationships with some of the club’s power-brokers and the media.
He is still in contact via text with key figures at Chelsea and remains well loved at Stamford Bridge by players and fans alike.
To add grist to the rumour mill, Mourinho was spotted on a very public trip to London last week to buy a new home in the English capital.
Sources close to the Portuguese claim he is ready to return to England and it is said he is now on better terms with Abramovich after the rather bitter nature of his exit from Chelsea in September 2007.
Former Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez, currently out of work after leaving Inter Milan, was installed as 5/4 favourite with William Hill to become the next permanent Chelsea manager, but it is Mourinho — the 3/1 second favourite — who looks the best bet.
Another contender is Barcelona boss Pep Guardiola, who has a rolling one-year contract with the Spanish champions and maybe ready for a new challenge after so much success at the Nou Camp.
Swapping the harmonious atmosphere and breath-taking football at Barcelona for the notoriously difficult dressing room at Stamford Bridge may seem to some an uninspiring move, but Guardiola has yet to put pen to paper on a deal for next season.
Fabio Capello, who quit as England coach recently, has also been named among the leading candidates, while Everton boss David Moyes, Swansea manager Brendan Rodgers and former Chelsea midfielder Gus Poyet, now in charge at Championship club Brighton, are in the bookmakers’ lists even though that trio look like long shots.
Abramovich, who hand-picked Villas-Boas last year when Guus Hiddink had been the bookmakers’ favourite to succeed Ancelotti, appeared prepared to be more patient with the 34-year-old than previous bosses.
The Russian seemingly recognised the difficulties in overhauling the squad and the playing style at Stamford Bridge, but he opted to make yet another change with the club’s European ambitions in danger.
It is understood Abramovich delivered the news to Villas-Boas personally as he, chief executive Ron Gourlay and director Eugene Tenenbaum took him aside after training to inform him of his fate.
In the end Villas-Boas’s lack of experience at the highest level was brutally exposed as he struggled to deal with the job of dismantling a squad that had grown old since the glory days of the Mourinho era.
Now it might well be the “special one” who returns to take on the fading egos in the Chelsea dressing room and build a new era in west London.