Monday, 21 May 2012
A club in utter disarray just ten weeks ago, on the brink of a Champions League last sixteen exit, in virtual freefall in the Premier League, and subject of persistent rumours of player revolt against former manager Andre Villas Boas was turned around in dramatic fashion by ex-player Roberto Di Matteo.
Fear of not qualifying for next year’s Champions League was the apparent motivation for Villas Boas’ sudden removal after just eight months in the Stamford Bridge hotseat. Assistant coach Di Matteo was hastily installed as ‘interim manager’ and almost instantly things began to change.
Vastly improved results (if not necessarily performances) gave hope that fourth spot in the Premier League might still be attained, and perhaps even a continuation of Chelsea’s historic success in the FA Cup might be achieved.
Beating Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur in the quarter and semi-finals of that competition, and a dramatic turnaround in the Champions League second leg against Napoli followed by success against both Benfica against Barcelona resulted in Chelsea reaching the two biggest club cup competitions in the world.
The media has claimed that Chelsea in have ‘ridden their luck’ in this season’s two cup competitions, and even former player-manager Ruud Gullit in his role as TV pundit developed a theory about a ‘little blue angel’ protecting Chelsea’s goal.
Certainly, on balance of play, throughout many of the knockout stages of the European cup, Chelsea’s opponents have often racked up more shots on and off target, more passes, more possession and more corners. But as seasoned football observers recognise, matches are not decided by those particular statistics; they’re decided by goals, and in European knock-out matches, also by the away goals rule and when necessary, penalties.
Likewise, a goal line clearance, a blocking tackle from a defender, or a save by the goalkeeper is due to skill, experience and reflexes of the defending players, not luck.
If this is luck, then Chelsea has experienced much bad luck in past European competitions, crucially in the 2008 final versus Manchester United where if memory serves the woodwork was struck by shots from both Lampard and Drogba, as well as the decisive spot kick in the penalty shoot-out when John Terry famously slipped on the waterlogged Moscow pitch.
What has really grated with Chelsea fans in the past has been the generally poor and ostensibly biased refereeing decisions against the team, like Luis Garcia's 'ghost goal' for Liverpool in 2005 and even more famously in the 2009 semi-final against Barcelona; the name Tom Henning Ovrebo is forever etched in the memory of Chelsea fans, a Norwegian official way out of his depth.
Ovrebo neglected to favour Chelsea’s claims for a hatful of clear-cut penalty decisions and Barcelona progressed to the final with a last-minute away goal by Inesta. UEFA conspiracy theories abound, even though it’s more likely that internationally inexperienced referees are simply star-struck by Barcelona’s array of talent. Ovrebo has since admitted that he made errors.
Even in this year’s semi-final second leg at the Camp Nou, Messi was deserving of three yellow cards in my opinion (he received one), while Fabregas blatantly dived after Drogba’s admittedly ill-advised challenge for Barca’s ultimately squandered penalty. A yellow card for ‘simulation’ and another for a tussle with Lampard could have left Barca down to nine men.
Instead, the Turkish referee booked Ramires and Ivanovich for protesting decisions and a fairly innocuous challenge by Mereiles, ruling them all out of the final. (I must say that Terry’s unsubtle off-the-ball assault on Sanchez rightly deserved a red card, and sadly the ultimate punishment of depriving him of taking part in the greatest night of his career.)
Despite all of this, ten man Chelsea, coming back from 2-0 down in the Camp Nou to draw 2-2, progressed to the final with an immense, rear-guard performance which rocked the world of football. Those watching on Sky will not forget Gary Neville’s girly orgasmic scream of delight as Torres rounded Valdes and rolled the ball into an empty net in the 90th minute.
Many ingredients contributed to that astonishing night, but luck wasn’t one of them.
In the FA Cup final itself, after dominating much of the game, King Kenny’s last meaningful act as Liverpool manager was to substitute Jay Spearing for Andy Carroll, a decision which almost turned the match.
Carroll grabbed one goal and almost scored another but for an astonishing point-blank save by Cech. The ball was perilously close to crossing the line, but numerous TV replays and freeze frames couldn’t prove it did. In real time, the officials certainly couldn’t be sure, and were therefore correct in not awarding a goal. So it goes down not as a lucky escape, but as a world-class save.
So, to the Champions League final. A Chelsea team that had four first team regulars – Ramirez, Meireles, Ivanovic and the inspirational captain Terry – all out suspended. It included 23-year-old Ryan Bertrand on his Champions League debut, the often vulnerable Bosingwa, a virtually untested centre-back pairing of the £8m Cahill and the sometimes unpredictable David Luiz, both patched up from recent hamstring injuries.
A team that had rarely played well during the entire preceding season, and had hardly had a day to train together throughout the tenure of the interim manager due to their congested fixture list.
Defeat by Bayern would have been more than disappointing because Chelsea’s players were unable to express themselves in an attacking sense during the first eighty-odd minutes of the match. Torres after the game spoke of Chelsea playing ‘with the handbrake on.’ The tactical plan was presumably to sit deep and defend for their lives as they had in Barcelona.
Bayern are no Barcelona, but the suspensions and players carrying injuries meant that Chelsea was much weakened, and as fate would have it, effectively playing the final as an away fixture. Di Matteo's tactics resulted in Bayern attacking and Chelsea simply defending, a pattern which remained unaltered until Muller scored in the 83rd minute.
Then Bayern’s coach, the vastly experienced Jupp Heynckes made the error of substituting Muller for the defensive Van Buyten immediately after the goal in an attempt to kill the game, but only succeeded in handing the initiative to Chelsea. The only option open to Chelsea now was to attack; the lively Torres came on for Kalou and Drogba’s stunning headed equaliser came just five minutes after Bayern’s goal and two minutes before full time.
The match immediately became a much more even contest, Drogba's goal taking the match into extra time. Drogba though, had failed to learn his lesson from the Nou Camp and tripped Ribery to give ex-Chelsea winger Arjen Robben the chance to convert from the penalty spot. Cech made the first of his three dramatic penalty saves that night, the other two coming in the dreaded penalty shoot-out after extra time.
I have every sympathy for Bayern. They outplayed Chelsea in many respects, but at the crucial moment, their players snatched at their opportunities. You could even argue that their goal had an element of luck about it, as the unmarked Muller’s header – surely mistimed and misdirected - bounced into the ground before somehow squeezing between Cech’s hands and the crossbar.
Compare that to Drogba’s sublime, powerful, perfectly timed equalising header from Mata’s corner. A classic strike that would grace any game, let alone this great stage.
But for all his antics, he has scored over 150 goals for Chelsea and has proved himself to be the biggest of big game players, coming up with goals in the most important games of all – nine goals in nine cup finals, and cementing his place as a true club legend.
As has Frank Lampard, contributing another massive performance in a long career full of them, the pivot which the team revolved around, the added responsibility of captain borne so well, and in my opinion a man quite likely to become Chelsea’s greatest ever player. And to those who may say he’s more workmanlike than skilful, look at the defence-splitting ball he played to Ramirez for Chelsea’s first goal in the Camp Nou, or the free-kick in the FA Cup semi-final against Spurs.
The world-class saves of Petr Cech in each of the big games games and his heroic penalty stops in the final should not be overshadowed; consider the blocks, goal line clearances and attacking impetus that Ashley Cole has produced at the end of a long, hard, sometimes indifferent season; I could go on. John Obi Mikel finally reaching his potential. Fernando Torres’ energy giving Chelsea impetus in those final crucial minutes of regulation time. An unbelievably polished performance on his Champions League debut for Bertrand. Heroes to a man.
Although Chelsea were still in two cup competitions when Di Matteo took the reigns, surely the priority was to make fourth spot in the Premier League and retain the club’s Champions League qualification for next season.
Instead, he opted for the risky strategy of playing the best players for the two cup competitions and playing weaker teams in the league in order to preserve the team’s fitness in the ludicrously hectic season run-in. Defeats at home to Newcastle, away at Liverpool and the draw away to Fulham all contributed to Chelsea missing out on fourth place by six points (although the goalless draw at home against Spurs was also crucial) and with it the automatic Champions League qualification spot for next season.
As it turned out, it was a calculated gamble, which against all odds, paid off in spectacular fashion. Victory against Bayern Munich gives Chelsea automatic entry into the group stages of next year’s competition, and the added incentive of Europe’s top competition to persuade any potential summer signings.
Obviously, this is not a long-term strategy. It’s unlikely that Chelsea’s tactics against Barcelona or Bayern Munich would work on any regular basis against the biggest sides. The team requires rebuilding, and as much as it hurts to think it, Chelsea heroes like Lampard, Drogba, Cole and Terry are entering the end part of their careers. Owner Roman Abramovich whose millions made all this possible reputedly craves not only success, but critically popular, attractive attacking football.
Is Di Matteo the man to be entrusted to usher in a new generation, to develop a more entertaining, more positive footballing style while maintaining results and keeping the current crop of players contented? Something which Villas Boas spectacularly failed to do?
The heart of every Chelsea fan would say Di Matteo more than deserves a chance; but I fear that Abramovich may choose to look elsewhere.
Sometimes it makes me wonder if we should actually just let UEFA decide who win trophies by committee, or maybe as voted by a select panel of judges like they do in ice skating or high board diving. That way Barcelona could win everything every year and the purists would be happy.
Actually, no, football is about playing to your team’s specific strengths, neutralising your opponents’ strengths and capitalising on their weaknesses. It’s about moments of inspirational skill and stupid mistakes. Football is not just about attacking play, but defensive play, blocking, tackling, tactical awareness, physical strength, clinical finishing, and confidence.
Above all, it’s about a winning mentality; you can call it belief, mental toughness, resilience, or discipline. Whatever it is, Chelsea have it in droves. As Drogba said after the game, he learned it from the likes of Terry and Lampard when he first arrived, and now he’s passing it on to the younger members of the squad: A winning mentality that quite frankly I thought had gone.
But now suddenly you witness Cahill and Luiz desperately throwing themselves to block goal attempts in the fashion that we’ve seen Terry do so many times in years gone by.
Chelsea won the UEFA Champions League according to the laws of the game, with no histrionics or play acting, without the benefit of poor refereeing decisions, against the odds, at the home ground of their opponents. They won it with a tactical gameplan, carried out to the letter, with heart and soul and team spirit, with heroic performances, with belief and discipline and no little skill. Luck didn’t play a part.
If critics insist that Chelsea have been lucky in the latter part of this season, then they have to concede that ‘luck’ in those terms has been firmly stacked against Chelsea in many preceding seasons, particularly in the Champions League. And if they believe that luck somehow ‘evens out,’ then these past ten weeks or so have seen Chelsea cashing in their chips so carefully saved up and finally getting their just reward.
I am particularly delighted for the so-called ‘old guard’ of Lampard, Terry, Cole, Cech and Drogba who truly deserve their winner’s medals, if not for this campaign, then for their dedication to the cause over the past eight seasons or so. When Villas Boas sidelined so many of the players in the middle of the season, I thought that the prospect of ever seeing them win the ‘Cup with the Big Ears’ with Chelsea was gone forever.
Winning the Champions League and FA Cup from the state Chelsea was in three months ago is, no doubt about it, a footballing miracle. Only a historical perspective will judge whether it’s our greatest ever season – Jose Mourinho leading Chelsea to their first title in fifty years in 2005, or Carlo Ancellotti’s double-winning campaign of 2010 must surely also be in contention.
But as nights go, this was the greatest night in Chelsea’s history, no question (and despite what some opposition fans may suggest, Chelsea have a rich history – winning a European trophy against Real Madrid in 1971 before Liverpool won anything in Europe for an example - a legacy which Chelsea continue to build while others rest on past glories).
Congratulations Chelsea, Champions of Europe 2012, a trophy fully deserved, no luck about it.
A Post Script:
On switching on Sky Sports News at midnight, I was rather amused to read the scrolling ‘Breaking News’ that Tottenham had qualified for the Europa League. There’s nothing like putting a positive spin on bad news, but I don’t expect that was much consolation for Spurs fans.
It did get me thinking that England having four representatives in the Champions League is probably a large degree due to the success of Chelsea over the past five years anyway, and that third place was quite achievable for Spurs during the run in to the Premiership season – some were even suggesting that they might be a title contender at one point, so I can’t help thinking they only have themselves to blame.