Friday, 18 May 2012

Before the Big Final - Thoughts of a True Blue

Call my mentality old-school if you like, but I’ve always thought “We won the cup” sounded much better than "We finished 4th". The very idea might send chills down the spines of the Board of Directors at Stamford Bridge, but this is how I - and I suspect, most Chelsea fans - feel. The season would’ve been far less memorable for me if we’d scraped 4th place at the cost of losses against Birmingham and Napoli.

The chairman may not share my feelings, but if we had finished fourth with no trophy, it would've been hollow victory (Is it even allowed to call that a victory?). Give me the euphoria of victory in the Cup Final any day. Give me the sight of Didier Drogba executing yet another celebratory knee-slide on the Wembley turf any day. Give me the sight of our golden oldies flashing four fingers in the ceremony any day.

Chelsea's - and Drogba's - love-in with Wembley just goes on and on

Watching your team walk up the Wembley stairs to collect their medals and lift the trophy is always a wonderful sight (and as Chelsea fans, one we've been lucky to witness quite often in the last few years), and only first place in the league can match that.

Or winning the European Cup.

The FA Cup is one thing – and one important thing at that - but it’s the Champions League run that’s really got the Blue juices flowing this season, especially given our previous in the competition. It’s been a route exactly like Liverpool’s in 2005 - qualification from the group uncertain till the last match, and second favourite in every knockout round. It's even gone as far as failing to qualify for next season's competition via league position. Chelsea’s performances in the group stage and at Naples - or indeed, getting into a position of having to win the Champions League in order to qualify for it - aren’t exactly advised as tactics but if you can pull it off, there’s no better feeling.

Pulling it all off in Europe, though, has been harder than we thought. Ghost goals, slippery turf and super-myopic referees down the years are but a few things that have now left Chelsea fans wondering “What’s going to do us in this year?” every season. Chelsea are due good fortune. Lots of it. And at several points this year - Ivanovic's emphatic winner against Napoli that completed a seemingly impossible 4-1 win, when Messi hit the bar from the spot, when Fernando Torres scored in stoppage time at the Nou Camp - it seemed as if it was written in the stars, that Lady Luck was finally smiling down upon the Blues.

Moments that make it seem like it's Chelsea's destiny

Chelsea have been to hell and back to get this far, and they will not meekly submit to Bayern. Both clubs will be missing important players for the final, though I doubt that will take too much away from the spectacle. Those praying that Chelsea lose (read: Bayern and Tottenham fans) will be rubbing their hands in glee over the fact that Chelsea can’t call upon mammoths in Terry, Meireles, Ivanovic and Ramires, but after having to win a match 4-1 and doing it too, and getting out of the Nou Camp unbeaten without centre backs, I think we can handle this.

On paper, Bayern seem the stronger side and are certainly the bookies' favourites for this one. But silencing the detractors has been something of a day job for Chelsea under di Matteo, and I predict 2-1 to the gutsy Blues, Drogba to score the winner in what might be his final game for the club.

Cue wild celebrations as legendary veterans finally win the trophy they so richly deserve, followed by pictures of a smiling Board of Directors. Smile they will, and their smiles will be broader than they were a couple of Saturdays ago, for be they bankers, accountants, chairmen, managers or fans, “We won the Champions League” gets them all.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Chelsea prove that age is but a number

John Terry was rather vocal after Chelsea’s FA Cup victory over Liverpool. The 5-time FA Cup winner was pointing out that for a squad of aged has-beens marshalled by an inexperienced manager who probably wouldn’t make it to June, Chelsea haven’t done too badly this season.

It might have sounded like the old warhorse was putting some newfound critics in their place - except we’ve been here before. Nearly every season since Mourinho left, in fact. What people have consistently spoken against - and failed to recognize - is that Chelsea’s veterans are no ordinary men.

The natural manner of Chelsea’s play suits Drogba, Terry and Lampard. What the hacks in the press failed to account for when ripping these players to pieces earlier this season was that Chelsea were being made to play a completely new style (that saw just about anyone besides Sturridge, Ramires and Mata perform below par), coupled with the fact that the manager was taking his job of moving Chelsea to the next era way too seriously to see that he was benching (never mind their age) the team’s two best players.

Drogba and Lampard were benched for the first half of the season - to what end?

Since di Matteo began his reign, the difference has been there for all to see. He did little more than bring back the system Chelsea were used to, and put the best players out to play. Simple if put in words, but the results have spoken volumes about its effectiveness. There is only one way of looking at it: the 'dinosaurs' at the core of Chelsea's team are in fact very, very good – provided the system is right (isn't that true of every player?)

This does perhaps bring up an interesting theory - that the biggest problem in the Chelsea setup is the belief that there is a problem. Roman Abramovich has hired (and fired) in an attempt to 'move Chelsea on'. The attempt ended in failure. How could it not end in failure? Chelsea are at their best playing the same system they always have with the same players they always have, and the sooner Roman realises that and keeps di Matteo (who has realised that), the better it will be for the club and its future. There will come a time when big changes are needed, and this is not it. Not yet.

There are technical aspects of the game that lend logic to this 'anomaly'. The most striking sign of footballing old age is the loss of that yard or two of pace. But Chelsea's grand old men never really had pace as their strong suit. As the age counter kept on ticking, they kept delivering because their talents were largely independent of - and therefore largely unhindered by - senescence

Petr Cech's performances have been key to Chelsea's progression in the knockout competitions

Drogba, Lampard and Terry were supposed to have been past it since the day Scolari walked out. 2009 was the time they should’ve moved on, they said. Seven years on from their first league title, the same players matched - and beat - the world's best team. Rather than being the schooling that was supposed to be dished out to the seniors, it was the opposite - Drogba was a monster in Barcelona's path, and took the one chance he got. Frank Lampard set up two of Chelsea's three goals in the tie, his passing exquisite as ever. A forgettable second leg aside, Terry was Lionel Messi's equal and more. As a matter of fact, Chelsea have won a league title and three FA Cups (and waiting on Saturday's result) since this whole ‘Chelsea are too old to win anything’ circus began, so Blues fans will be hoping it doesn't stop.

The responses from these three just keep on coming

This season has been particularly noteworthy for the seniors. Not that this has been better than the class of 2005 or 2010 (yet), but this stands out in different ways. The critics have never been more vociferous, and the response never more emphatic. Chelsea have gone on to show that experience coupled with talent that never waned can be deadly. After a particularly arduous season strife with problems both on and off the pitch, they’ve pulled through and shown there are no ordinary oldies.

And long may that continue.

From looking like their worst season to being on the cusp of their best season ever - wonder who's responsible for that