The Big One: Will Chelsea Conquer Europe This Time Around?

Premier League Review

Looking beyond the string of results stitched together by Roberto Di Matteo, one has to admit that this league campaign has been utterly disappointing for Chelsea. They finished at sixth position, far below the expectations of Chelsea fans and an exception to top four finishes achieves by the Blues in the last decade or so. At the start of the season, itself, Chelsea knew that this season was unlike the others. Manchester City, by virtue of quality signings would be near the top come end of the season. The fact that none of the top four teams bar Manchester CIity  were consistent over the course of the season. Arsenal's disastrous start to the campaign may have lifted the hopes of competitors. In short, you had five clubs vying for top 4 positions. Indifferent form of most contenders to this list and some inspired play by Newcastle United ensured Chelsea were up against it for the whole season. Thanks to Di Matteo, Chelsea now have a chance to play the Champions League next year though a back door, the key to which can only be found in a crowded Allianz Arena on 19th May.

Despite the poor league form, they have a few positives to look forward to. Juan Mata, Ashley Cole, Ramires and Petr Cech stand out in my opinion. Drogba and Lampard pulled their weight around when their consistency was questioned and Captain Terry has defended resolutely when called for.

Old is still gold?

The short answer is no. Chelsea were faced with a similar dilemma at the start of this season. Do they start planning for the future and blood more youngsters into the side? Does the change need be wholesome or a wise one? AVB's handling of senior players left a lot to be desired. The idea was right but the execution went horribly wrong.

Football is as much about sentiments as it is about results. Sentiments say old professionals like Drogba, Lampard and Terry have brought you so much success over the years that merely because they are older now, ditching them is not a good thing. On the other hand, it is a reality that older players have to be replaced with younger ones. Superstars fade and new stars emerge. This is the nature of football. Surprisingly, Chelsea did invest in young players like Piazon, Lukaku and Davilla etc. But they loaned Mceachran out to Swansea where he has not played enough games. So, from a player who was knocking doors at Chelsea, his future is far from certain now. For a large part of the season, neither Torres nor Drogba fired in a lot of goals, to be polite. Agreed, Lukaku is by no means a finished product but footballers are not built in a factory. Football pitch is where they grow and mature.  Jack Wilshere is considered to be a very bright young talent today. Arsene Wenger gave him games, though critics might argue that it had more to do with injuries and faulty transfer strategies. Chelsea should have given youngsters like Bertrand more games. I think the argument that youngster lose confidence if they make costly mistakes. No one knows why Romeu was not given games after impressing initially.

If Chelsea had blooded youngster gradually this season, would they have ended up lower than where we are placed this season? I do not think so. I dare say that their inexperience would be compensated by the enthusiasm they bring to the table. In my humble opinion, this is an opportunity missed. As for next season, they have to blood youth into the first team or buy younger but established players. Either ways, the current crop of old players have to be content with playing a lesser role. This is the way the game works and these players should acknowledge that even when they entered the Chelsea set up as young prospects; it was at the cost of older players then.

Champions League

The time is upon us. Latest update from Cobham is that both Luiz and Cahill trained and would end up playing in the final. This is terrific news and the only headache remains over who plays at right back and midfield, where Ivanovic and Ramires will be sorely missed. Up front, I think Drogba should and will most probably start. Torres will have to be content with warming the bench, yet again.  Mata, Lampard and Mikel seem like the other certainties. The choice is between Kalou and Sturridge. Sturridge, in my opinion, offers a selection headache to Di Matteo.  He is more talented than Kalou but way more erratic and selfish. I think he has to learn that unless you have the skill of Messi and Ronaldo, not passing the ball to teammates often hurts the team. And on current form, he cannot light a candle to either player mentioned above. Also, even they prefer to pass to a team mate if he is in a better position. It is the ability to read a game well that defines exceptional players. I like the way Sturridge plays but his selfishness may deprive him the chance to impress on the biggest stage in European football.

As for Bayern, they will miss their suspended players. Up front, Gomez is like Drogba. He can keep central defenders busy and drag the players out of position, for their pacy wingers to take advantage of. But Robben is one player Chelsea have to look out for. He has that special quality that separates good players from great ones and Chelsea would not want to be hurt by a player who was once their own. Ribery is skillful too, but I think he can be reigned in and pushed to the side by making him tightly and pushing him in the corner.

Overall, Chelsea would like to win this game and break Spurs fans' hearts and help themselves to UCL next season. This is easier said than done. But given the current spirit that prevails at Stamford Bridge, I would not bet against a Chelsea win at Munich. The football, however, may not be pretty. But I have always said that only thing that matters in football is the scoreline. 

Di Matteo: The miracle worker?

A manager is only as good as the result the team achieves on the pitch. By that logic, Di Matteo has done exceptionally well in his time at Chelsea. Two months of incessant football meant he had to rotate the squad and results are for everyone to see.

Chelsea have won the FA Cup and are 90 minutes away from a memorable win in Europe. The team is together and Di Matteo has handled questions about his future really well. I have an alternate theory to Chelsea's fight back though.

It is often seen in football that a new manager often leads to improvement in the team's performance. Players want to get selected ahead of others and hence give their best. Results improved and the players often accused of lethargy and inefficient displays under AVB became champion performers under Di Matteo. Also, this reflects badly on the players at some levels also. Professional players should be concerned with winning and winning alone. Divisive tactics and irreverent attitude towards the manager does not lead to productive results for the team.So, these players should have done the job under AVB that they are doing so effectively under Di Matteo. Agreed, every manager brings a different approach to management but at a more personal level, every player must want to win, for himself and for the team.

This should not take anything away from Di Matteo and the way he has rotated the squad. Fortunately, the flurry of games means he had a credible reason to rotate the squad, unlike his predecessor Andre Villas-Boas. Di Matteo has been instrumental in galanising this aging Chelsea squad and would hope to get one last big performance out of them.

Where does his future lie? I do not think he will get the job full-time. Such is the nature of managerial musical chair at Stamford Bridge that it is tough to foresee Di Matteo being given the reigns for a longer term. Also, I do not think he is the man to overhaul the squad. His handling of Kalou has been superb but at the cost of Sturridge, who had shown exception early season form. Besides, Roman Abramovich would want a complete overhaul of the squad and that involves letting go of some big names in the Chelsea dressing room. It is one thing to energise the team for a short term goal and another to alter the composition of the team itself with a long term future in mind.

It will be interesting to see if Champions league winners' medal adorns Chelsea players' cabinets on May 19th. The battle is tough and the end is near but as Di Matteo insists, this might be their time.