Team Jose yet to lose the winning habitComment on this story
London - It is business as usual for Chelsea at this time of the year: from the chaos of mid-season comes the trophy-hunting of May as the most dysfunctional club with a winning habit find themselves on the brink of the 11th trophy of the last 10 years.
On 1 July is the 10th anniversary of Roman Abramovich's takeover of Chelsea. Although richer men have bought football clubs since then, it remains the template for the billionaire revamp of a club's fortunes. No club in recent history has risen so far in the elite of European football through the intervention of one man as Chelsea have under Abramovich.
Decadent? Wasteful? Profligate? Chelsea have been all of those things at times but, amid the sky-high compensation deals for sacked managers and the market-busting wages, they have undoubtedly built teams which are more than just a bunch of overpaid mercenaries. They have recovered from the sacking of a manager, or a dressing-room meltdown, too many times to be written off as a team with no soul.
After a few days in which Manchester City staked their preference for the “holistic” approach, you have to wonder what Abramovich's reaction to that choice of terminology might have been. The Russian has bought into the philosophies of more than one guru or modern coach since he bought the club a decade ago, but the solution when things have gone wrong has always been the same - the sacking of the manager.
“Shock therapy” was how Petr Cech referred to it on Tuesday aboard flight ZT7411 to Amsterdam for Wednesday's Europa League final against Benfica. Having seen every manager from Jose Mourinho come and go, he could afford to ask the question whether in fact all these changes could be construed as a positive thing. And while Chelsea edge close to the second Mourinho era, it is not like things are dramatically different from when he left.
Cech and Ashley Cole will almost certainly start and Frank Lampard is a good bet to be in the team too. Only Terry of that old guard is a major doubt, even for the bench. He trained for a while on Tuesday night and then retreated down the tunnel after a few minutes' light running.
As for Lampard, the club is close to announcing his new contract for another year, as previously reported in these pages. There is little doubt that he will stay and, while he is not yet prepared to confirm it, he conceded yesterday that he was now regarded as the kind of player who is associated with one club only. “I think there are a few players here now you feel the same about - particularly me, John, Ashley now and Petr Cech,” he said. “So I am quite proud I am in that position. As I said before, the reality is towards the back end of your career you can never be sure. I always used to sign five-year contracts. And that is different now - that is just the way it is.
“The closest [I came to leaving] was Inter Milan with Jose in 2008, the idea of challenging myself to do something different and going with him because he was such an influence on my career. In the end I wanted to stay for personal reasons, because of my mum and the attachment I have to Chelsea.
“There was a fairy tale when I was younger that made me think I would like to go abroad and accomplish something, but I decided not to and it's turned out to be the right decision. That was the only one, really; I am fortunate to be here. I have always signed five-year deals and that was the one time when I was close.”
There is no question that after the particularly brutal sacking of Andre Villas-Boas in March last year, a decision taken reluctantly by the club, the English contingent have been pushed further from the heart of the club. It is the likes of David Luiz, Cech and, in spite of his patchy form, Fernando Torres, who are considered as being the influential voices at the training ground.
Branislav Ivanovic and Ramires are much more senior players now and then behind them is the new generation of Juan Mata, Oscar, Eden Hazard, Gary Cahill and Victor Moses. The club is changing, but it has been a very long process and nowhere is that better exemplified than by the fact that Lampard is expected to lead the team out tonight.
The last two European finals for the club have both gone to penalties, in Moscow in 2008 when they lost to Manchester United and then again in the triumph over Bayern Munich last May. On both occasions, Lampard took, and scored, the third penalty of five but this time around they have not been practising.
“No we haven't as of yet. I guess we probably wouldn't do today at the stadium. We did before - I can't remember what semi-final it was, Swansea or one of those recently, we did practise recently. It is a strange one. Some people are better practising and some are better not. Some people like to practise, but Michael Ballack hardly practised a penalty when he was here and he was one of the best penalty-takers I have played with.”
Since 2007, the successors to Mourinho at Chelsea have riffed on his ideas and his teams but they have never changed the basis of what he had done. Only in the last two seasons has there been a shift away from the classic Mourinho style towards the dream of a team more like Barcelona that Abramovich hoped Villas-Boas would deliver. Now, with the club on the eve of another European final, Mourinho is on his way back.
When it came to man-management, Lampard said that, “Jose, for me, was the best.” He said: “He was the first one I saw to have a particular way, he knew whether a player needed a leg-up or a bollocking. He formed a spirit among the team that was formidable. We didn't have a group mentality to win the league but he brought that in. I saw it with him at Inter Milan and with his Real Madrid team.”
Tonight is really the last night of the old era that Mourinho began. Before the start of the next, in which there will be a familiar face in charge again - and presumably no lack of the drama that has characterised the last 10 years of the club.
Key confrontations where the match will be won and lost: Oscar Cardozo vs David Luiz
The Paraguayan impressed against Chelsea in last season's Champions League and has a fine record against English sides. With John Terry doubtful, responsibility will fall on Luiz to curb his attacking instincts and keep Cardozo quiet.
Nemanja Matic vs Juan Mata
The 24-year-old Matic played just three games in a season at Chelsea but has flourished since leaving Stamford Bridge. His role is similar to that of Mata's for Chelsea and this battle could have a key bearing on the outcome of the final.
Luisao vs Fernando Torres
Torres has struggled domestically but revelled in European competition, scoring eight goals. However, the towering Brazilian Luisao, who served a two-month ban for pushing a referee this season, has the experience to counter Torres' threat.