FOX Soccer Exclusive
Relaxed Chelsea to end season in style
After the rain, the sunshine. As the media rolled into Chelsea’s training center Tuesday, an unseasonal, wet and cold day in London and its surrounds gave way to a tentative glimpse of summer. It was the perfect meteorological metaphor for the club’s upturn under the guidance of interim coach Roberto Di Matteo.
It’s also been a campaign of contrasts, something worth contemplating as we watched Chelsea’s first team put through its paces in teeming rain from under a marquee. When the Barclays Premier League concluded on Sunday, it left the Blues in sixth, their lowest league position in a decade. Comfortably the worst league finish of the Roman Abramovich era, the unpredictability of nine months of soaring highs and perplexing lows offers hope of a happy ending — which will require snatching London’s first European champion title from four-time winner Bayern Munich in its own lair.
“This season just proved that in football, everything’s possible,” goalkeeper Petr Cech said while nodding after the workout. “After the Napoli away game (in the Champions League round of 16), everybody had written us off, and here we are in the final. Sometimes one unlucky game can change your season. Hopefully that unlucky game already happened a few times in the league, and it’ll be a different story.”
If the Premier League season offered up the ultimate in dramatic endings at the weekend — a climax described by Di Matteo as “incredible” — then the focus on newly crowned Manchester City in Champions League final week also should evoke the image of the first visitors to Bayern’s Allianz Arena in the group stage, back in September.
That night tends to be more associated with Carlos Tevez’s touchline mutiny, which cloaked the bigger truth of the evening; an in-form City was hopelessly outclassed by Bayern in its atmospheric home. If the repercussions rumbled on for some time, on the night Tevez’s actions were merely representative of a helpless side emasculated by a stylish opponent.
Yet in Di Matteo, Chelsea has — for now, at least — a coach adept in bridging gaps. With plenty of credit residual from his successful playing days at Stamford Bridge, he links the upwardly mobile Chelsea of the Matthew Harding era in the mid-to-late-90s to the modern European behemoth that it has become in recent years.
Improbably, this has helped the stand-in boss scrabble together some order among the chaos, including leading Chelsea to an FA Cup victory. Di Matteo has historical status, but no ego whatsoever. Frequently drawn on his prospects of keeping the top job full time after the final, he is sanguine. “I'm a clubs person,” he says and shrugs, the comforting timbre of his voice unfaltering. “I feel responsibility for the club, and I'm not thinking about myself.”
It’s easy to see how the former Lazio midfielder might have brought equilibrium to the notoriously difficult surrounds of the Chelsea locker room. Di Matteo is calm, measured, and a pragmatist, and he understands the mechanisms of the club’s established hierarchy of senior players. Seeing himself as a coaching work-in-progress, he appears happy to be a cog in the wheel rather than a blustering force of righteousness. The insouciance of youth may have led his predecessor, André Villas-Boas, to his own downfall, but with Di Matteo, the club seems to have the best of both worlds. "I'm still young," he says with a grin, prompted again about possible anxiety to cement his future plans.
If — as the Brazil-based broadcaster Tim Vickery points out — former Chelsea boss Luiz Felipe Scolari struggled to deal with such a cosmopolitan squad, Di Matteo is the exact opposite. Born and brought up in Switzerland by Italian parents, he chose to represent the Azzurri at international level before decamping to the Bridge for six years. Villas-Boas may have been urbane and sparky, but Di Matteo is a true internationalist.
Still, even if he betrays little emotion either facially or vocally, it is clear that he has Chelsea at heart. It often is said that a club’s historical records matter little to its current staff, but Di Matteo has felt every disappointment and near miss. “We've worked so hard for this over many years and tried many times,” he opines, admitting that he has had his squad practicing penalties to minimize the chances of repeating 2008’s heartbreaking shootout choke against Manchester United in Moscow.
Cech is philosophical about that letdown. “You can’t change history,” he insists. “We had 120 minutes and a penalty shootout to win the cup, and it didn’t happen for us that time. To sit in the corner and cry because we lost is just not my style. It’s just the way it is. You can only change the future and the present. The present is that we’re in the final, we’ll have another go and this time I hope it’ll finish in a completely different way.”
With the Premier League — and, in effect, all this season’s trials and tribulations — done and dusted, there is a feeling of freedom in the squad. The distance from the domestic goldfish bowl, in terms of both geography and opponent, may bring the best out of Chelsea. Looking back to 2008, Cech speaks as if the experience of facing United for the ultimate prize was a suffocating one. “Four years ago,” he remembers, “we got to a final with a team we played many times before in the league, so you keep repeating the same games. When you play them all year in the league and the cup, it’s difficult.”
The goalkeeper hopes to spend his 30th birthday, the day after the final, celebrating in style. “I need a cup; I don’t need a cake,” he says with a smile. As the gloom lifted from the training pitch, a welcome sight emerged in the figures of David Luiz and Gary Cahill, swelling hope that both will be fit to take their places in defense in Munich on Saturday. “I hope that everybody will be fit and ready to play,” Cech says. “But if you save everything, you don’t need defenders.” The assembled journalists laugh, but Cech doesn’t. Chelsea believes that it’s time to complete its minor miracle.
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