LONDON – Roberto Di Matteo's reign as Chelsea manager came to a sudden end Wednesday when he was fired only six months after guiding the club to an unlikely Champions League title.
Russian owner Roman Abramovich displayed his trademark ruthless side by getting rid of Di Matteo with the defense of the European trophy in tatters following a 3-0 loss at Juventus on Tuesday.
Chelsea is on the verge of becoming the first defending champion to be eliminated from the group stage. The London team also dropped to third place in the Premier League after a bright start.
"The team's recent performances and results have not been good enough and the owner and the board felt that a change was necessary now to keep the club moving in the right direction as we head into a vitally important part of the season," Chelsea said in a statement.
There was no immediate announcement on a replacement for Di Matteo, but former Liverpool and Inter Milan coach Rafa Benitez has been heavily linked with the role and declared his interest. Pep Guardiola, currently on a one-year sabbatical after leaving Barcelona at the end of last season, is also a contender, along with Harry Redknapp and one-time interim Chelsea manager Avram Grant.
Chelsea said in a statement, "The club will be making an announcement shortly regarding a new first-team manager," but didn't indicate whether the appointment will be permanent or temporary.
Given Abramovich's history of hastily firing managers — he is looking for his ninth in nine years — there was some inevitability about Di Matteo's demise. The Swiss-born Italian was only hired on a full-time basis in June after an impressive stint as temporary coach.
"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 and led the team to the FA Cup title — the club's seventh — and a first Champions League trophy, beating Barcelona in the semifinals and Bayern Munich in the final.
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.
However, Abramovich moved quickly following the first disappointing run of results this season.
In the Premier League, Chelsea had been leading for much of the season but now trails Manchester City and Manchester United after picking up just two points from its last four matches.
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 at least a point in Ukraine.
"The club faces a difficult task ahead in qualifying for the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League as well as maintaining a strong challenge for the top of the Premier League while competing in three other cup competitions. Our aim is to remain as competitive as possible and challenge strongly on all fronts," Chelsea said.
Chelsea's next game will be a home Premier League match against Manchester City on Sunday.
The 42-year-old Di Matteo went into coaching after his playing career was cut short by injury and led both the MK Dons and West Bromwich Albion before joining Chelsea's backroom staff.
"We will never forget the huge contribution he has made to this club's history," Chelsea's statement said.
Benitez has been out of work since being fired by Inter in December 2010. Although experienced, his appointment would raise eyebrows given his trademark defensive approach. Abramovich is widely known to prefer his team to show a more attacking style, demonstrating this by spending a combined reported $110 million on attacking midfielders Oscar, Eden Hazard, Marko Marin and Victor Moses in the offseason.
Guardiola, the architect behind Barcelona's stunning recent success, is believed to be Abramovich's preferred choice. In four years at the Nou Camp, he won three Spanish league titles and the Champions League twice while retaining the team's attractive passing style so admired by Abramovich.
AP Sports Writer Chris Lehourites contributed to this report.