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Chelsea Names Spain’s Rafa Benitez Interim Manager

Rafa Benitez was named interim first-team manager by Chelsea on Wednesday until the end of the season, according to the team’s website. He plans to meet with his new players on Thursday at their practice facility to begin the transition.

The 52-year-old Spaniard is replacing Roberto Di Matteo, who was fired Wednesday, a day after a 3-0 loss to Juventus left Chelsea’s title defense in question. Di Matteo guided Chelsea to an improbable Champions League title last year, but the team is on the verge of becoming the first defending champion to be eliminated from the group stage.

Chelsea hired Di Matteo on a permanent basis in June, but the team struggled in the Premier League. They have only picked up two points in their last four games to fall to third place.

“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.

Di Matteo took over a Chelsea team that was in disorder after the firing on Andre Villas-Boas in March. As the interim coach for the club he led the team to the FA Cup title, followed by the Champions League title. They beat Barcelona in the semifinals and Bayern in the finals.

Despite Di Matteo’s instant success and promotion this summer, Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich is not pleased with the third place standing in Group E of the Champions League. They are currently behind Shakhtar Donetsk and Juventus with one match left.

Chelsea is trailing Manchester City and Manchester United in the Premier League after leading for much of the season.

“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.”

Chelsea seems to believe Benitez’s defensive approach can salvage the season. Benitez previously coached Inter Milan before being fired in December 2010.

Benitez will make his coaching debut Sunday as Chelsea takes on Manchester City in a home Premier League match.

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