LONDON - Chelsea surprisingly brought Rafael Benitez out of the coaching wilderness by hiring the Spaniard as interim manager yesterday after mercilessly firing the man who guided the club to its first Champions League title.

Benitez agreed to a short-term contract with the European champions until the end of the season, nearly two years after being fired by Inter Milan in his last coaching role. He was previously in charge of Valencia and Liverpool, the club where he won the Champions League in 2005.

The 52-year-old Benitez becomes the ninth manager under Chelsea's Russian owner, Roman Abramovich, who displayed his trademark ruthlessness by cutting Roberto Di Matteo only six months after the Italian led the team to victory in the Champions League final over Bayern Munich (see IHT for full story ).

"The owner and the board believe that in Benitez we have a manager with significant experience at the highest level of football, who can come in and immediately help deliver our objectives," Chelsea said in a statement.

Benitez was flying to London from Abu Dhabi on Wednesday and will meet the squad for the first time at the club's training ground on Thursday. His first match in charge will be in the league on Sunday at home to Manchester City, the reigning champions and current unbeaten leaders.

Pep Guardiola, currently on a one-year sabbatical after leaving Barcelona at the end of last season, had also been linked with the post and could yet replace Benitez in the off-season.

In Benitez's favor is his experience and close relationship with Fernando Torres from their time together at Anfield. Getting the best out of Torres could be crucial to pleasing Abramovich, who signed the Spain striker for 50 million pounds ($81 million ) in January 2011.

Hiring Benitez is a risk, however, given his trademark defensive approach. Abramovich is widely known to prefer a more attractive style, as demonstrated by spending a combined reported 70 million pounds ($110 million ) on attackers Oscar, Eden Hazard, Marko Marin and Victor Moses in the off-season.