The Italian saw his team humiliated by Juventus, a defeat that leaves his side teetering on the brink of elimination from the Champions League. Although Di Matteo insists he will stay and fight for his position, the fact that the club are looking at potential replacements will be unnerving, with the former Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola the first choice if he can be persuaded to return to work having stated he wanted a year-long sabbatical last May.
The comprehensive 3‑0 defeat in Turin has left Di Matteo's side with only two wins in their last eight matches in all competitions ahead of the visit of Manchester City, the reigning champions and current league leaders, on Sunday. The Italian had taken the bold decision to drop Fernando Torres, their £50m British-record signing, for their most critical match of the season but Juve still prospered, undermining the manager's position only six months after his team won the title in Munich.
"At the moment, I think, with the team, we are all in it together," said a deflated Di Matteo in the aftermath. "I'm responsible for the results and at the moment I am here and I think I will be for the future. But that question [about my future] is probably not one you should ask me. As far as I'm concerned, I'll keep working. But I'm responsible for the result. I'm responsible for the performance. It's a negative evening for us – a big disappointment for us, for the team, for the club. If anyone has to take the blame, it's me. I selected a team I was convinced was the right team to win against Juventus, or get at least a draw, so the blame belongs to me."
Di Matteo was eventually rewarded for that stunning success in the Champions League final with a two-year contract which incorporates what was considered a standard break clause, which was agreed only once it became clear Guardiola intended to take a sabbatical from the game in the United States.
The former Barcelona manager still intends to honour that, though the availability of Benítez, who had previously discussed taking over from André Villas-Boas last season, is unnerving. The Spaniard had been reluctant to accept a short-term contract midway through last season, though he remains out of work and is desperate to return to club management.
In that context, the prospect of becoming the first European Cup holders to fail to escape the group stage damages Di Matteo. Juventus need only to avoid defeat at Shakhtar Donetsk next month to qualify at the holders' expense, the Ukrainians' 5-2 defeat of Nordsjaelland in Copenhagen having assured their own progress. That means Chelsea may end up in the Europa League even if they defeat the Danes in the final group match.
The decision to drop Torres, while justified on recent form, also constituted a risk given the hierarchy's hopes that the Spain forward would become integral to the way this new-look team functions. "I didn't want to give the centre-backs any point of reference," said Di Matteo. "I'd rather have [Eden] Hazard, Oscar and [Juan] Mata interchanging positions and trying to find the space. In terms of that transition we were very dangerous and created some good opportunities.
"I was convinced it was the right selection which is why I decided that. I thought we did create some problems for them. The first goal was fortunate for them. We had to take a few more risks after that. But my conviction was 100% to go with this team.
"Mathematically, it's still possible [to go through]. While there's hope you still try. Who says that Juventus aren't going to lose at Shakhtar? We just have to make sure we do our job at our end, win the last group game. With 10 points, normally … usually, it's enough. Sometimes it's not."
A sense of realism appeared to have descended over his disconsolate squad. "We said before the game that we have our destiny in our hands, but not any more," said the goalkeeper Petr Cech. "Now we need to do our bit: we need to win our last game and hope our fate is kind. Being realistic, Juventus played very well and they need a point and Shakhtar are already through. We showed much better spirit than the last games. In the first half it was very difficult, we did well and created chances, but if you create a chance you need to take it.
"That was the difference. They went ahead with a lucky deflection, the second goal was another deflection, but they did very well and deserved to win. We didn't cope very well. It is a very sad moment because last season the Champions League was like a dream. I wouldn't say it's a nightmare now, but it's a huge disappointment."
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © Jason Bagley