LONDON – Roberto Di Matteo's reign as Chelsea manager ended Wednesday when he was fired six months after guiding the Blues to an unlikely Champions League title and replaced by Rafa Benitez.
Russian owner Roman Abramovich displayed his trademark ruthlessness by getting rid of Di Matteo with the defense of the European trophy in tatters following a 3-0 loss at Juventus on Tuesday.
"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.
Hours later, Benitez became the ninth manager in 12 years under Abramovich. Benitez, fired by Inter Milan in December 2010, previously coached Valencia and Liverpool, where he won the Champions League in 2005.
Chelsea is on the verge of becoming the first defending champion to be eliminated from the group stage. Of the Champions League. The London team also dropped to third place in the Premier League after a quick start.
The team described Benitez as a "manager with significant experience at the highest level of football, who can come in and immediately help deliver our objectives."
Chelsea was in disarray when Di Matteo, then an assistant coach, took over when Andre Villas-Boas was fired in March. The former Italian national team 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.
"We will never forget the huge contribution he has made to this club's history," Chelsea's statement said.
Di Matteo, with his typical coolness, has 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 matter, having accused a Premier League referee of abusing one of its players.
"I am extremely proud of the successes and trophies that we were able to bring to the club in recent months," Di Matteo said in a statement issued through the League Managers Association. "Lifting Chelsea's first Champions League trophy, in Munich, was the best achievement in club history and without doubt the highlight of my career to date, both as a player and manager. It is a memory I will treasure for the rest of my life."
Abramovich, however, 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 gaining 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. Chelsea's next game will be a home Premier League match against Manchester City on Sunday.
"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," Chelsea said. "Our aim is to remain as competitive as possible and challenge strongly on all fronts."
AP Sports Writer Chris Lehourites contributed to this report.