FOR all the demands Roman Abramovich placed in Guus Hiddink’s in-tray on his first day at Chelsea’s Cobham training ground, reinvention was not one of them.
The Dutchman’s interim status meant there was never any chance of him carrying out root and branch reform at Stamford Bridge: instead, his brief centred on reminding Chelsea of what made them such a formidable proposition in the first place.
Old habits have been reawakened in west London. Any whimsical hopes the Russian may have harboured of Chelsea swashbuckling past their rivals have been shelved. Instead, they have relied on their traditional muscular qualities and, while the stardust may be lacking, results are not.
Chelsea, already assured of their place in the Champions League semi-finals and still retaining faint hopes in the Premier League title race, are back in the FA Cup final after muscling past an Arsenal side that looked callow and frail by comparison. And that, as Hiddink pointed out, can also be deemed “beautiful”.
Not that Arsene Wenger sees it that way. The Arsenal manager routinely wrinkles his nose at sides who rely more on brawn than brain and his assessment of Chelsea’s blueprint for success — “It is based all around efficiency, power and maturity’’ — was the very definition of damning with faint praise.
It is not that Chelsea are bereft of guile. Frank Lampard might boast the stamina of a marathon runner but he is also that rarest of midfielders — one capable of measuring his passes to the nearest millimetre, as he proved with the gorgeous raking ball that teed up Florent Malouda for Chelsea’s opening goal. Lampard is one those players, Hiddink observed, who can “smell and read a game.’’
He was right. Arsenal, too, had physical prowess in the shape of Emmanuel Adebayor, Abou Diaby and Emmanuel Eboue, but it was the way Chelsea used their muscle which was decisive.
Not one drop of sweat was dispensed unnecessarily by those in blue: their anticipation and tactical awareness — especially in midfield, where the subtle talents of Cesc Fabregas and Denilson were smothered by Lampard, Michael Essien and Michael Ballack shifting higher up the pitch — providing a masterclass in efficiency.
It was not by chance that Chelsea, despite boasting an average age seven years older than Arsenal’s, were growing stronger as the seconds ebbed away, finally receiving their reward when Didier Drogba shrugged off the gasping Mikael Silvestre, rounded Lukasz Fabianski and swept into the bottom corner.
Chelsea’s indefatigability was another triumph for Hiddink. One of the complaints most frequently aired by the club’s senior players during Luiz Felipe Scolari’s ill-fated tenure was a lack of intensity in training, a failing which left the squad struggling to last the distance in high-octane encounters, but that has changed.
“I was thinking even if it did go to extra-time we were looking a lot fitter and sharper than them,’’ Chelsea captain John Terry said.
“I think the manager’s training is key. We’re resting more after games but when we’re training he’s on top everyone. He’s not letting anyone get away with anything.’’
While Wenger could barely hide his crushing sense of disappointment, he should not have been surprised.
This was a defeat which merely confirmed what most observers already knew: that while they possess some of the most exciting talents in Europe — none more so than Theo Walcott, who capped a sublime performance by volleying the opening goal in the 14th minute — they still lack the depth to cope with the kind of injury crisis that deprived them of all but one of their regular defenders on Saturday.
Their deficiencies were most painfully apparent at centre-back, where Silvestre confirmed why Manchester United had been content to jettison him last summer, and in goal, as Fabianski endured a miserable 24th birthday.
His nerves were apparent early on, when he streaked outside his area to clear a high ball only to be beaten to it by Drogba.
He was saved on that occasion by the impressive Gibbs, who hacked off the line, but his luck was out in the 33rd minute when Malouda drove in at his near post and then again for Drogba’s winner.
“Lukasz will be one of the world’s greatest keepers,’’ Wenger said, “but he is very young, like most of the team.’’
In time, the balance of power may well shift from west to north London. But, for now, the young guns are not a match for Hiddink and his gnarled Chelsea pensioners.
REFEREE: Martin Atkinson (Yorkshire) 5: Fortunate that Drogba’s winner negated the need for debate over his decision to ignore Silvestre’s late handball in the penalty area.
MATCH RATING: *** Compelling, if not fluent. Arsenal did their best to match Chelsea’s physical intensity but they were ground down at the death.
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