Has there ever been a team that has proved its critics wrong in more emphatic fashion?
Chelsea’s ageing prima donnas, cast as dysfunctional, disaffected and decrepit just three months ago, are now on course for greatness with an FA Cup assured and a Champions League final to come.
Chelsea’s veteran spine of Petr Cech, Ashley Cole, John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba — each and every one described not so long ago as nearing the end of their Stamford Bridge careers — were the inspiration for victory over Liverpool at Wembley that means season 2011-12 now has the potential to go from being a disaster to possibly the most memorable in the club’s history.
That quintet have a combined age of 158 and yet they made a mockery of Andre Villas-Boas’ attempts to ease them out into retirement as, inspired by the leadership and confidence of interim manager Roberto Di Matteo, they completed a remarkable few months since AVB was sacked by guiding the club to its fourth FA Cup in six years.
Those of a cynical nature will note Chelsea’s old boys were not able to keep pace in the Premier League and tired badly in the last 15 minutes at Wembley, a period during which Liverpool came mightily — and controversially — close to equalising when Andy Carroll’s header was judged not to have crossed the line following a remarkable save from Cech.
They might also point out a continued need for rebuilding and restructuring this summer if Chelsea want to maintain their reputation as English football’s most belligerent opponents. But there is little doubt now that AVB was too hasty and too heavy-handed in his determination to make changes in the short term.
Manchester United have proved, with the way Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs have been nurtured and treasured, that having experienced heads around the place brings great rewards — and by contrast Arsenal must be wondering how different their recent seasons would have been if Arsene Wenger had not stuck so rigidly to his ‘no over 30s’ philosophy and allowed influential players such as Patrick Vieira, Gilberto and Robert Pires to leave too early.
Chelsea, even with their ageing legs, were dominant for the first 60 minutes — a period which must have set alarm bells ringing at Anfield because Liverpool’s midfield, with the woefully under-performing Jordan Henderson and Jay Spearing, were no match for their opponents.
Juan Mata was a constantly creative influence all match and set up the rampaging Ramires to burst through the Liverpool defence in the 11th minute, the Brazilian brushing Jose Enrique aside too easily before beating Pepe Reina at his near post.
Liverpool did have a Craig Bellamy effort cleared off the line by Branislav Ivanovic but Chelsea were worthy of their two-goal lead when Lampard found Drogba — and the striker flashed home an unerring left-foot finish for 2-0; his seventh goal in seven Wembley appearances and his fourth in an FA Cup final.
It was only after Andy Carroll came off the bench — and Chelsea tired — that Liverpool suddenly looked a threat. The big striker turned Terry inside out before firing his side back into contention and thought he had equalised with minutes to go — only to be denied by Cech’s incredible point-blank save which pushed the ball onto the bar.
Carroll wheeled away in delight and later claimed he was certain the ball crossed the line; but referee Phil Dowd and his linesman didn’t agree and endless TV replays proved inconclusive.
Not that Chelsea cared too much, of course. They savoured the moment, deserved their victory and looked ahead to Munich. And there was, too, an acknowledgement that keeping the nucleus of the squad together, despite it’s age, may not be as bad an idea as first appeared.
Drogba, for instance, is still in talks over a new contract and appears to be seriously considering other options.
But Lampard made no bones about the striker’s importance, saying: “We’re desperate for him to stay. He’s a magnificent player. His body is a machine; he’s lost no pace, he’s lost none of his finishing instincts. There’s no one like Didier, not as a bulldozer with sublime finish and touch. That’s not easy to find. He’s unique. It’s been a pleasure to play with him and it would be a pleasure to continue playing with him.”
Terry’s take on the situation was similar. “I hope he’ll be back at Wembley with us in future,” he said. “It would such a shame if he left because he’s been incredible for this football club. When people around the world look at Chelsea they look at Didier and Lamps and these kind of players. They are Chelsea. We’ve got a massive Champions League game coming up after that hopefully something can be thrashed out. Hopefully he stays.”
That same sentence could be applied to Di Matteo, who has made such a huge impact as interim manager but still hasn’t been called for talks over taking the job on permanently; and it’s clear his players are in full support.
“Robbie has been incredible,” said Terry. “It’s a decision the board are going to make, hopefully we can make it very easy for them by winning in Munich now.”
This Chelsea story is not over yet.
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