- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Buying an item of clothing that didn’t suit us or a gadget that didn’t do what we hoped is a mistake many of us make. But not many of us lose our jobs over it.

Roberto Di Matteo was a brave man for making it clear to all of Europe that his boss, Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, made an $80 million mistake in the shape of super-flop striker Fernando Torres.

Dropping Torres to the subs’ bench for a Champions League game Chelsea couldn’t afford to lose was a damning statement on the Spanish international. It was also a necessary one because Torres has consistently failed in nearly two years at the London club to do what was promised on the packaging: score important goals.

Rather than absorb Di Matteo’s message, Abramovich shot the messenger. Di Matteo is out, abruptly shown the revolving door at Chelsea that has now swallowed eight managers in nine years.

Abramovich can argue that chopping and changing so frequently has worked. Since the billionaire bought Chelsea in 2003, his players have won one Champions League, three Premier League titles, four FA Cups and the lesser League Cup twice.

That’s far more silverware than London rival Arsenal has snagged in the same period despite having loyally stuck to just one manager, Arsene Wenger. In England, only Manchester United has been as successful as Chelsea in the Abramovich era.

But turning a club that hadn’t been English champions since 1955 into a European force has cost the Russian a monster chunk of his estimated $12 billion fortune. How larger might the return on his $1 billion-plus investment in Chelsea have been if his players had had a steady pair of hands to guide them, like Alex Ferguson’s at United?

Chewing so wantonly through managers, including proven winners Jose Mourinho, Guus Hiddink and Carlo Ancelotti, not only makes Abramovich look indecisive but spoiled by his riches, too, like an insouciant monarch who takes one sip of champagne but then demands that the rest of the bottle be poured away and another be opened.

Chelsea’s statement _ the club must have it permanently handy on a computer hard drive by now, with just the name left to fill in _ that announced the departure of Di Matteo on Wednesday less than 12 hours after the reigning European champion lost 3-0 to Juventus said, “recent performances and results have not been good enough,” which is true.

But Di Matteo didn’t let down Chelsea. You can’t say that of a manager who guided the Blues to the Champions League title, the trophy Abramovich so coveted, just six months ago.

He was let down by an owner who can’t decide what he wants and by players who haven’t been earning the fortunes Abramovich pays them.

Torres, not Di Matteo, should have been the first to go and put up for sale, like a change of mind on eBay: “Purchased in haste; never really fit; seems in OK condition; no guarantee.”

It’s not merely that Chelsea has had a paltry 19 goals in 86 appearances from Torres since the club paid a British-record transfer fee to Liverpool for him in the winter sales of 2011.

It is not just that Torres has subsequently failed to score against Liverpool in five appearances in Chelsea blue, most recently in a 1-1 draw on Nov. 11. Nor is it simply that he didn’t score at all for five months from October 19, 2011, to March, 18, 2012, or that he made Chelsea wait 14 games before he scored his first goal, as a substitute against West Ham.

It’s that too few of the goals Torres does score for Chelsea actually matter. Even his most notable goal, in injury time in Barcelona in the Champions League semifinal last season, was a stocking filler because Chelsea was already through to the final on the away-goals rule when Torres’ strike knocked down the European champion from Spain for good.

He did score a hat trick, his only one for Chelsea, last season against Queens Park Rangers. He also scored and won a penalty kick in a 2-0 league defeat of Newcastle early this season. But, all told, Torres’ highlight reel of match-defining goals for Chelsea is a disturbingly short movie, not a feature film. He has never been the consistent game changer for Chelsea it badly needs now that Didier Drogba, who so often was the difference for the Blues, is playing his final years in Shanghai, China.

By not starting Torres against Juventus, fielding him for just 20 fruitless minutes when the Italians were already ahead 2-0, Di Matteo made clear that his patience was gone. That’s not what he actually said, of course. But faced with the choice of starting Torres or playing with no recognized striker, Di Matteo chose the latter.

For Torres, that verdict could hardly have been more damning. Without a trusted scorer like Drogba was, like Robin van Persie is for Man United or Zlatan Ibrahimovic at Paris Saint-Germain, Di Matteo’s team had no one to aim for up front on Tuesday night.

Eden Hazard, Juan Mata and Oscar, none of them strikers but handed the job of scoring against Juventus, are plenty quick and crafty but were too small to pose any true physical challenge to the Italian defense. They disappeared like Smurfs amid the giants in black and white jerseys.

There has been ample amateur psychology about Torres, about how his big price tag overburdened him with expectations and that he only needs time, a string of confidence-restoring games and a playing system that suits him to rediscover the goal scorer within, the scorer he was at Liverpool.


Enough is enough.

Di Matteo, not the mistake, is gone. He couldn’t turn Abramovich’s expensive purchase into a feared match winner.

But neither will the new guy, Rafa Benitez.


John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at https://twitter.com/johnleicester

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