ROMAN Abramovich told Chelsea's playing squad what he expected of them in a private meeting at the club's training ground yesterday just minutes after he had personally sacked Andre Villas-Boas, who finally paid the price for the team's desperate run of form.
In a signal that the club's Russian owner does not believe that the fault lies entirely at the feet of Villas-Boas, he called a players' meeting at the training ground from which all other Chelsea staff were excluded. Other than Abramovich and the players, only the Chelsea director Eugene Tenenbaum, chief executive Ron Gourlay and technical director Michael Emenalo were in the room.
It is understood that the club board will put their faith in a manager of proven experience when they appoint on a permanent basis at the end of the season. The prospect of bringing back Jose Mourinho is not regarded as unthinkable. Pep Guardiola is another option if he chooses to leave Barcelona at the end of the season.
Villas-Boas had clashed with many of his senior players, including Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole and Didier Drogba. There was such huge opposition to him in the dressing room in recent weeks that the club felt that after Saturday's defeat to West Bromwich Albion they were left with no option.
Abramovich had met with Villas-Boas after the morning's training session and told him he was to be sacked. Even after a run of only two wins in the last nine games, the Portuguese coach was understood to be very unhappy with the decision and had been hopeful that, despite his team's struggles, Abramovich would keep faith with him.
Villas-Boas was not required to leave immediately and was still at the training ground some time after Abramovich had broken the news to him. The young coach had not always enjoyed the most cordial relations with other members of the Chelsea staff, and had few allies left at the training ground by the time the decision came yesterday.
Between telling Villas-Boas of his decision and speaking to the Chelsea players, Abramovich spoke to Roberto Di Matteo, the assistant who was imposed on Villas-Boas. Di Matteo was asked to take charge of the club to the end of the season. He has no loyalties to Villas-Boas and accepted the decision. The other staff to leave yesterday were first-team fitness coach Jose Mario Rocha and opposition scout Daniel Sousa. Villas-Boas brought both with him.
With 11 games remaining Chelsea trail Arsenal in fourth place by three points. The chairman Bruce Buck was not present at Cobham for any of the big meetings that took place over the last 24 hours. However, it is understood that the American lawyer was kept up to date with developments.
The club have made enquiries about Rafael Benitez taking charge until the end of the season but were unable to come to any agreement with the former Liverpool manager. It is anticipated that Di Matteo will stay in charge until the end of the season, starting with tomorrow's FA Cup fifth-round replay against Birmingham City.
Di Matteo is still regarded by many players as part of the unpopular Villas-Boas regime, even though he did not have a particularly close relationship with him. His first job will be to mend some of the bridges with the senior players whose influence continues to hold sway at the training ground.
Villas-Boas clashed with Cole before dropping him for the Champions League last-16 first-leg tie against Napoli last month. His remarks about Lampard at his last press conference suggested their relationship had broken down.
The club said in a statement yesterday that they felt their "only option" was to change the manager. The club said: "The board would like to record our gratitude for his work and express our disappointment that the relationship has ended so early. Unfortunately, the results and performances have not been good enough and were showing no signs of improving. We aim to remain as competitive as possible on all fronts. With that in mind, we felt our only option was to make a change."