Who would have thought Roberto Di Matteo would be the first manager sacked in the Premier League? The man who tasted Champions League glory a short six months ago is the first to be shown his walking papers.
Di Matteo was never the man Roman Abromovich wanted to run Chelsea FC. A shock Champions League run gave Abromovich very little choice than to give Di Matteo a new well-deserved contract. The difficult decision would have been to let Di Matteo walk last summer; full well knowing Abromovich's sights lay with someone with more prestige and a more impressive CV. Still, the Swiss-born Italian manager endeared himself to the Chelsea faithful. And his tactics seemed bang-on out of the gate in the new campaign. His 4-2-3-1 system fit ideally with the players at his disposal, making up for a lack of production up front, while compensating defensively for an all-too shaky back-line.
Chelsea's fortunes went south over the last month as the teams' depth and quality of the fringe players at Di Matteo's disposal came into question. As the fixture list became congested, squad selection became a challenge. Unsurprisingly, the team "underachieved" in recent weeks – winless in four in league play and are on the verge of crashing out of the Champions League – inevitably sealing Di Matteo's fate.
It's been suggested Di Matteo's decision to bench out-of-form striker Fernando Torres for Chelsea's trip to Juventus mid-week was the last straw. Interestingly, Di Matteo became the third consecutive manager to bench the misfiring Spaniard, only to lose their job shortly thereafter. If this is the case for Di Matteo's dismissal, then perhaps Mr. Abromovich should question the thought process behind his lucrative, under-producing purchase rather than the tactical wherewithal of his manager.
So Abromovich has now turned to Rafa Benitez, a Spaniard who was able to get the most out of Torres while at Liverpool. Torres is a Benitez backer, and the hope is the £50 million investment finally comes to form at Stamford Bridge. It's a big ask; considering past Benitez coached sides haven't exactly played the esthetically beautiful football Abromovich desires. And Benitez knows his leash is only as long as the owner allows it. It's clear the collar will remain tight as long as the interim tag is plain for all to see. Security is not in the job description at Chelsea.
Nonetheless, the coaching carousel continues down Fulham Road. The ninth Chelsea manager since 2003 has the requisite quality to make a run for the Premier League title. But it will be an up-climb for the Blues, starting with reigning Champion Manchester City this Sunday.
Welcome back, Rafa. Enjoy it while it lasts.
Here are your latest TSN Premier League Power Rankings:
1) Manchester City (8W-4D-0L, last week: 3) – The defending Champions find themselves back atop the league and the Power Rankings. City are the only undefeated team in the Premier League despite what has to be considered inferior form to start the season. City, like every team in the league has shown their flaws. But when City is at its best, few can match their quality and tactical stability. Roberto Mancini may have tinkered too much with what worked last year, but has slowly come around to recognize the flaws in his methods. Of critical importance to City, when the team is at its best, it's no coincidence attacking midfielder David Silva is on top form. The Spaniard has battled through injury to regain form in recent weeks. Silva scored on the weekend for the first time in league play since April. Captain and defensive rock, Vincent Kompany may miss this weekend's visit to Stamford Bridge after picking up a knock mid-week against Real Madrid. Kompany on crutches joins a lengthy list of injuries that has certainly contributed to sub-par performances.
2) Manchester United (9-0-3, last week: 1) – A shock 1-0 loss at Carrow Road highlighted a weekend of upsets on match-day 12. No Wayne Rooney (ankle) for United, but no excuses either. The team was far too negative and was out-worked every inch of the field. The centre of the park is supposed to be the driving force for any team. A central midfield combination of Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs will never provide the proper engine necessary to drive a team forward with any kind of purpose. The result was a team too slow in movement of the ball and forcing the opponent into mistakes. Manchester United tends to slip up as they did at Norwich only once on an annual basis. The team has prided itself on bouncing back from disappointment. QPR at Old Trafford Saturday seems the perfect recipe for a swift response.
3) West Bromwich Albion (7-2-3, last week: 5) – The early surprise of the season keeps plugging away, picking up results at home. Three points against Chelsea is the most impressive of the bunch, as the team improves to 6-0-1 at The Hawthorns. Steve Clarke has to be given all the credit in the world, the way he's shape his squad into a legit stable and powerful side. Shane Long has proven himself as a reliable, hard working attacking option. Long, with four league goals, has been among the best attacking players thus far in the BPL. Long doesn't do it alone. West Brom boasts four players with three or more goals in league play. It's this kind of balance all over the pitch that has worked so well in Clarke's favour. It's now time to start picking up wins away from home. A trip to Sunderland this weekend will be a good test.
4) Chelsea (7-3-2, last week: 2) – Roberto Di Matteo rolled the dice resting some of his regulars on the trip to The Hawthorns with eyes on Juventus in the Champions League. There is never an easy spot in the Premier League, and West Brom away is as difficult a task as any. A 2-1 loss means Chelsea is winless in their last four and questions are arising about the Blues Championship contending pedigree. Depth is the biggest issue with the team showing considerable dip in form when the regulars are rested. And a leaky back-line is becoming a liability. Chelsea has conceded in each of their last seven league games. Di Matteo is now gone, and the flaws in the team are now Rafa Benitez problem. Chelsea supporters will not warm to Benitez easily. A result against visiting Manchester City Sunday would be a sure-fire way to ingratiate himself at his new temporary home.
5) Everton (5-5-2, last week: 4) – A surprising loss at Reading drops Everton a spot in the Power Rankings. The loss was especially surprising with the Toffees relinquishing a lead against an inferior side. It was the eighth straight match Everton has conceded; a defensive record that has been overlooked due to Everton's early success going forward. Now, injuries are creeping into the side, with Kevin Mirallas desperately missed through a hamstring issue, and Phil Neville now out 6-8 weeks after a knee operation. Marouane Fellaini misses the next match through injury, and all of a sudden, David Moyes is left with the paper thin squad is has grown accustomed to over the course of his reign at Goodison Park. Former Toffee Tim Cahill has proclaimed his interest in rejoining Everton over MLS' winter break. Considering the depth of the squad, it may not be a bad idea returning Cahill's call.
6) Arsenal (5-4-3, last week: 7) – It's hard to say Arsenal's back on track on a 5-2 North London derby victory. Give the Gunners credit; they were thoroughly deserving of victory after Spurs went down a man. Theo Walcott has earned his way a spot in the starting XI. And the side looks much more balanced with him as the featured right-winger. He adds much needed width to a team that plays far too narrow. While any issues in attack look to be solved (at least temporarily), there are still too many basic mistakes at the back. Arsenal's International quality defenders need to do much better for the team to continually improve.
7) West Ham United (5-4-3, last week: 9) – West Ham fought back valiantly in a 1-1 home draw with Stoke City. And in fairness, they should have come away with all three points, dominating possessing as well as goal scoring opportunities. Andy Carroll has yet to score since his summer loan move from Liverpool; a troublesome sign for the 23-year old. While he's not scoring, Carroll is remaining a factor on the field, using his size and strength as an asset in a side content on playing the long-ball. Still, as a targetman, Carroll is expected to score. West Ham is also said to looking to secure David Beckham in January. The move isn't far-fetched. And the East London native would add a touch of class with his superior passing of the ball. West Ham has a nightmare stretch ahead, with matches against Spurs, Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and West Brom.
8) Tottenham Hotspur (5-2-5, last week: 6) – It all started so well for Spurs in the North London derby before they imploded after the sending off Emmanuel Adebayor. Five goals conceded, as Arsenal steam-rolled their rivals. But in fairness, Spurs had clear-cut chances to cut the lead. But overall, were second best from the moment they were a man down. It's hard to gauge what would have happened if Adebayor has stayed on the pitch. They've now lost three straight in the league, and host resilient West Ham on short rest after a Europa League match against Lazio Thursday.
9) Liverpool (3-6-3, last week: 10) – After a difficult first 45 minutes against Wigan, the quality of Luis Suarez propelled Liverpool to victory through a second half brace. Suarez scored in his fourth straight league match and his league best 10th of the season. Now it's time the rest of the team picks up their production. No other player in the team has scored more than one league goal. The good news for Liverpool is defensively they have been a decent side. Credit Brendan Rodgers for remaining committed to his team shape despite not having the players.
10) Fulham (4-4-4, last week: 8) – Fulham defender Brede Hangeland was sent off in a 3-1 home loss to Sunderland. Hangeland certainly went to ground with a two-footed challenge, but there was hardly any malice behind the tackle. It was a difficult call to make and set Fulham back for the final hour of the match. That being said, the Cottagers remained composed and did well to work the ball on the ground and create legit scoring chances. Fulham could have very easily come away with a draw, if it weren't for some sublime finishes courtesy of the visitors. There is still a lot to like about the way Fulham plays. Dimitar Berbatov continues to shine as the de facto team leader.
11) Swansea City (4-4-4, last week: 12) – An away win for the Swans is a rarity. Winning at Newcastle for their first away win of the year is further evidence of the strength of the squad. Canadian born Jonathan de Guzman continues to be full marks after his summer move to Swansea, scoring last weekend's winner. Swansea is unbeaten in their last three league matches and is a team trending up. A stretch of defensive frailties looks to have been remedied. Swansea welcomes former manager Brendan Rodgers back to the Liberty this weekend. A win would be the icing on the cake for what has been a successful month.
12) Norwich City (3-5-4, last week: 15) – The Canaries have found top form, undefeated in their last five league matches. Manchester United was their latest victim in an improbable 1-0 home victory. United rarely threatened John Ruddy, but the England International goalkeeper was steady as can be when called upon. Ruddy anchors the hard working team, who fought for every inch of the field on the weekend. The Canaries are still weak in wide positions. But the emergence of Alexander Tettey has given the team a work horse in the middle of the park to compliment a cast of decently skilled players going forward. All of a sudden with injuries and a suspended Marouane Fellaini for Everton, this weekend's visit to Goodison Park doesn't seem so ominous.
13) Newcastle United (3-5-4, last week: 11) – The losses continue to mount for the Premier League's most disappointing side. Three wins through 12 matches is not good enough. And manager Alan Pardew claims back-to-back home losses have 'humbled' his side. Injuries and suspensions have complicated matters. But Newcastle is beyond time for excuses anymore. The side is largely unchanged from last year's team that had so much success. And the 13 goals for thus far are entirely unacceptable. A reasonable soft stretch in the schedule is upon them. If wins aren't in the cards, it's time to worry. Talented players don't necessarily make a quality team.
14) Sunderland (2-6-3, last week: 17) – The Black Cats showed signs of turning the corner two weeks ago and put together another top performance Sunday at Craven Cottage. The 3-1 victory flatters to a certain degree, with Fulham playing a man down for an hour. But it's undeniable Sunderland again showed promise of what the team is capable of doing every week. The onus for Steven Fletcher to score each and every week has finally been alleviated with only players proving capable in front of goal. Fletcher ended a six-match goal drought against Fulham.
15) Stoke City (2-7-3, last week: 16) – A bright first half at Upton Park gave reason to believe Stoke could win away from home. However, the second half was a much different story, and Stoke were thoroughly dominated by West Ham. As is often the case, Stoke did just enough to earn a point. The next two matches are all-important for Tony Pulis' side; back-to-back games at home for a team only victorious twice on the year. Wins are crucial at home for a team that does little away. Pulis will be desperate for another striker in his squad. The signing of Michael Owen has proved to be laughable, with the diminutive striker unable to stay fit.
16) Wigan Athletic (3-2-7, last week: 13) – Injuries are starting to add up for Roberto Martinez. All-important midfielder Ben Watson broke his leg at Anfield last weekend and joins the lengthy list of casualties, including James McArthur and Gary Caldwell. The Latics can hardly afford injuries have such, having one of the smallest squads in the league. Wigan is reeling after two straight losses and plays Reading on the weekend. The Royals are coming off their first win of the season and playing with much more confidence. This is truly Roberto Martinez time; one of the best managers in the Premier League who has shown time and time again to possess tactical flexibility and the ability to get the most out of his players.
17) Aston Villa (2-3-7, last week: 14) – The 5-0 thrashing at the Etihad last weekend was a rather harsh result for the hard-working Villains. The first two City goals were a result of poor officiating, with calls directly leading to a corner kick and penalty respectively. 2-0 down away, the onslaught was on. Paul Lambert's side shouldn't be dissuaded by back-to-back losses to the two Manchester sides. Lambert will serve a one-match touchline ban for abusive language in the loss to City. The key for Villa in their relegation fight won't come in the next couple weeks, but rather in January and what the team does in the transfer window.
18) Southampton (2-2-8, last week: 18) – The Saints gave their manager some breathing room in a big 3-1 away victory at QPR. The team was full of spirit, not content on sitting back and soaking up pressure from a desperate QPR. Southampton took the game to the home team for large stretches while managing to remain organized at the back. Southampton will never be a good defensive team. So they might as well attack and keep the pressure on their opponent. Rickie Lambert scored for the first time in seven games. The win was a significant statement against a fellow relegation zone dweller.
19) Reading (1-6-4, last week: 19) – Out of nowhere, a huge 2-1 comeback victory for the Royals, giving them their first win of the season. And just like that, Reading is out of the relegation zone and full of confidence. Reading is unbeaten in their last four and have only loss once in their last seven. Keeping games close will be their trademark. And grinding, pesky performances will be the norm. More good news; they face a battered and bruised Wigan Saturday at the DW Stadium in a match that actually looks winnable.
20) Queens Park Rangers (0-4-8, last week: 20) – Mark Hughes was finally sacked on Friday morning. Everything is so detached and forced every match. The defenders at Hughes disposal are mediocre at best ahead of their weekend visit to Old Trafford. Perhaps QPR is hoping Sir Alex Ferguson does his former player a favour, taking it easy this weekend. Or maybe Tony Fernandes wants to give the next manager a better shot at a result rather than sending him to the wolves against Manchester United.
- Manchester United vs. QPR from Old Trafford airs across the TSN and TEAM Radio Networks this Saturday, with coverage kicking off at 9:30am et/6:30am pt.
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