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The Italian struggled to control his players towards the end of his Blues reign as the feeling grew within the club that he was headed for the sack

SPECIAL REPORT
By Wayne Veysey | Chief Correspondent

One of the enduring themes of the Roman Abramovich era has been the influence of one of football’s most forceful and political dressing rooms.

Whatever the identity of the man patrolling the technical area on matchday, a cabal of senior players, strong characters all, have wielded enormous power.

This proved most advantageous in the final remarkable two months of last season, when Didier Drogba rekindled his Chelsea fire, dragged others up with him and inspired one of the most glorious denouements to any club career.

But it has been counter-productive on other occasions, most pertinently when a playing clan so antagonised by Andre Villas-Boas’ stand-offishness effectively downed tools to remove him from the Stamford Bridge landscape.

Roberto Di Matteo was fired and replaced by Rafael Benitez in the wake of Tuesday’s 3-0 defeat to Juventus.

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The Italian did not have anywhere near the unpopularity of Villas-Boas but the axe came after his coaching team had been undermined by a number of senior players, including Fernando Torres and John Terry.

Few at Chelsea’s Cobham training ground did not expect the axe to come following the explosive events in the aftermath of last Saturday’s 2-1 defeat at West Brom.

The pressure was growing on the squad and backroom staff following a month in which Chelsea had fallen off the Premier League summit, been embroiled in allegations against referee Mark Clattenburg and lost their grip on the Champions League trophy they had lifted six months earlier.

Di Matteo’s communication skills and relaxed demeanour were appreciated after Villas-Boas’ intensity but it is understood that the man who was promoted from the Portuguese’s assistant in March never had full control of the multi-millionaires at his disposal.

One well-placed source said Terry had the “real control” in the changing room, more than the manager in many ways. Not only is he the longest-serving player and the loudest, most outspoken figure, but he also has a hot-line to the boardroom. Younger players are in awe of him at Cobham. His words have real resonance.

Terry has a knee injury and was not involved at the Hawthorns but he remains integral to the daily rhythms of the club, acting as a motivating force and sounding board to those in the team.

Di Matteo was unable to demonstrate to the players that he was in total control. All the internal politics, egos and frustration boiled over as fingers were pointed in the away dressing room at West Brom.

At the heart of the inquest were Di Matteo and Torres, who had been substituted after 63 minutes following yet another atrocious performance.

It was a heated exchange. Voices were raised and fingers were pointed as the pair traded strong words, with each blaming the other for the Spaniard’s failure to deliver the goods once again in a Chelsea shirt.

Other players also waded into the row as they had their say on why the team had failed to win their fourth consecutive league match.
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The mutinous scenes were overheard by others in the bowels of the Hawthorns, where the dressing rooms are within close proximity of where select members of the television, radio and written press are shepherded after matches.

Di Matteo’s mask of nonchalance had been ripped off and many club figures, only too aware of Abramovich’s impatience and his delay in appointing the former midfielder as full-time manager in the summer, felt it was now only a matter of time before he was served his P45.

The word around Cobham was that the team had to win in Turin three days later.

Di Matteo, who was deprived of Torres’ understudy Daniel Sturridge through injury, played his final hand, axing the £50 million striker, replacing him up front with an attacking midfielder, and shifting right-back Cesar Azpilicueta further up field.

The gamble failed. Chelsea lost and Di Matteo was the collateral damage, a victim of results that unimpressed the oligarch owner but also of the notorious Stamford Bridge player power.

Benitez enters the lions’ den on Thursday morning, ostensibly a more detached man manager than Di Matteo. His first task: win over the players.

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