The initial reaction when news of Roberto Di Matteo's dismissal broke was to roll the eyes, add the Italian to Roman Abramovich's list of victims and shake the head in general sadness at the mortality of the manager and the impatience of the modern world. It seemed, on the face of it, a ludicrous decision.
Abramovich, after all, had yearned for the Champions League since taking over the club in 2003. Di Matteo had, at last, delivered it. His reward was a further 21 games, two of them in the League Cup. His dismissal was ruthless and on a human level felt unfair.
And yet football is a game in which, as Brian Clough's mentor, Harry Storer, pointed out, nobody ever said thank you. A trophy is won, the world moves on, and the only consideration is how likely the team is to win the next trophy. After a run of 10 games without a clean sheet, of two wins in eight matches, Abramovich clearly decided that the answer was not very. So Di Matteo had to go. No time to turn things around, no hanging on for appearances' sake, no sentiment. Chelsea are four points off the top of the Premier League. Realistically, who gives them the best chance of closing that gap, Di Matteo or Rafa Benitez? The decision of Abramovich and the Chelsea hierarchy was Benitez. A decision on whether he is the man in the long term can be taken in the summer.
The mistake may have been to give Di Matteo a two-year contract in the first place. When he was appointed in February amid the bitterness and chaos of the end of Andre Villas-Boas's reign, his brief was to steady the ship and make sure Chelsea qualified for the Champions League this season, to make sure that when they were appointing a manager in the summer, Chelsea could at least offer the highest level of competition, to make sure that Chelsea didn't miss out on Champions League revenues.
Di Matteo achieved that but in a wholly improbable way, not by finishing fourth in the Premier League but by somehow constructing a side that gutsed out a semi-final against Barcelona and a final against Bayern Munich. It was thrillingly unlikely, emotional and brilliant, but everybody knew that it was a one-off; even Muhammad Ali only rope-a-doped once. Absorbing punishment simply isn't a recipe for long-term success.
So while Di Matteo proved himself an inspired choice as a caretaker boss, it actually said nothing about his capacity to manage a team long-term or to oversee the transition to a new style - and the style Abramovich seemingly desires is possession-based in the style of Barcelona; about as far from the dogged heroism of last season's semi-final at the Nou Camp as it's possible to get. The caveat there, of course, is that nothing Abramovich has done at Chelsea in the past eight years has suggested he is interested in long-term planning: only two managers have lasted more than a season under him.
It may be apocryphal but the story is told of Abramovich speaking to Txiki Begiristain, who was director of football at Barcelona until June 2010 and has since taken up a similar role at Manchester City, last year. What would he need, Abramovich asked, to turn Chelsea into Barcelona? £100m? £200m? £500m? To which Begiristain is said to have replied, 10 years. Barcelona's success is not the result of a great coach or great players, or rather not just of a great coach and great players, but of consistency of philosophy that began in the seventies and has been followed fairly rigorously since Johan Cruyff took over in 1989.
There is a paradox here, of course, and it is that in the last eight seasons, Chelsea have won three Premier Leagues, four FA Cups and a Champions League with barely any consistency of approach. They defy the wisdom of stability. The contradiction is unravelled perhaps in two ways: firstly that there has been a stable core of players - too stable, many would argue, resisting change and leading to the managerial chopping and changing; certainly towards the end of last season when determination to seize what was probably their final chance at European glory was a clear motivating factor, has helped.
And secondly, that Abramovich has spent prodigious amounts of money; inconsistency perhaps can still bring success but only at extreme financial cost.
Had Pep Guardiola been available in the summer, it's doubtful Di Matteo would have got the job. But the former Barcelona manager wanted a sabbatical and, while there has been contact between him and Chelsea in the past month, he has clearly decided to stay in Manhattan until next year. Whether he would really want the pressure of working under Abramovich is debatable anyway, and he may also have an offer from City, where he could link up again with Begiristain.
Chelsea's directors seemingly began to have doubts about Di Matteo as early as a pre-season game against Brighton. Certainly the 4-1 defeat to Atletico Madrid in the Super Cup in August cut far deeper than anybody realised at the time. Chelsea, with their vaunted trident of Juan Mata, Oscar and Eden Hazard played some wonderful football early in the season even with Fernando Torres misfiring. Whenever they came up against strong opposition, though, they looked open at the back: Di Matteo spoke of needing to achieve a balance. He never achieved that; Benitez's job will be to tighten the defence without losing too much of the fluency that has made Chelsea so good to watch this season. It would help, of course, if he could coax Torres back to something like the form he showed under Benitez at Anfield.
Is Benitez the right man? In terms of organising a defence, certainly, although he was hated by Chelsea fans as Liverpool manager, and brings a level of paranoia and a desire for control that makes a falling out with Abramovich feel inevitable. Perhaps the short-term nature of his contract will stave that off for a while. Even if it doesn't, Chelsea haven't really lost anything: for all Abramovich's Barcelona fixation, flux seems like their natural state.