It was a penalty shoot-out like no other. In the intensity of the moment, perhaps the longer term significance of Chelseas Champions League victory against Bayern Munich was forgotten, but its ramifications have been felt throughout the Premier League this summer, with the stop-start nature of Chelseas season being swept to one side in those few tumultuous minutes. Had they not ended up winning this shoot-out, let us not forget, last season would have been perhaps the clubs most disappointing for a number of years, with victory in the FA Cup scarcely applying a fig leaf to a disappointing sixth placed finish in the league. As things turned out, however, Didier Drogba kept his cool in the Allianz Arena, Chelsea became Londons first champions of Europe and the whole complexion of this summer in the Premier League tilted on its axis. Chelsea, many believe, are back. Seldom in recent years has such a slender margin between defeat and victory had such potential implications.
When the club lost a penalty shoot-out to Manchester United in similar circumstances in Moscow in 2007, failure from twelve yards arguably cost Avram Grant anything more than mere footnote status in the history of the club. For Roberto Di Matteo, however, the coin landed in his favour and there was lite question that he would be handed the job on a more permanent basis. This time last year – and in recent years annual assessment of a new Chelsea manager has become something of a tradition – we were considering the merits of the bold choice of Andre Villa Boas into the job. It seemed at the time like a decision that could only be considered through the prism of the clubs itchy trigger finger managerial policy of recent years, become and lo and behold when the going got tough as winter faded into spring Villa Boas headed for the exit, his outstanding record at Porto forgotten in favour of derision at his inability to propel the team to serious challenge for the Premier League title. Di Matteo escaped censure for several likely reasons, including – but not limited to – his modest demeanour, the fact that he wasn’t the experiment that went wrong and the FA Cup win, but it was that penalty shoot-out in Munich that ultimately sealed his new contract.
Is he the right man for this job on a long-term basis, though? His managerial history elsewhere – at Milton Keynes and West Bromwich – seemed to indicate little that would mark him out as particularly suitable for the unique challenge that the levels of expectation at Stamford Bridge presents. This, though, is only part of the story. There is little question of Di Matteos popularity and his place in the recent history of Chelsea FC and it could be argued that this lends him an air of authority that others without a history at the club lacked upon their arrival there. Similarly, talk of the dressing room at the club being ‘too powerful’ (or variants thereupon) may also be too simplistic. If the Chelsea dressing room operates as most effective with the senior players taking roles that are beyond what may be conventional elsewhere or tolerated by other managers, why should Chelsea drop it? To preserve the cult of the manager? All we can say at this precise moment in time is that whatever Roberto Di Matteo either said and did or didn’t say and didn’t do in the last couple of months had the desired effect on the players… in the Champions League and FA Cup, at least. A sustained, thirty-eight match Premier League campaign, however, is quite different to joining the fray with just a couple of months of the season left to play. At this stage it is impossible to say whether he will be the next great Chelsea manager or whether he will be looking for work by the time that next season enters its closing straits, and either is entirely possible.
For every positive to have come from Stamford Bridge over the last two or three months, and there has been something else that has merely obscured what the real Chelsea FC might be in the summer of 2012. Didier Drogba, the talisman, left the club for pastures new in China, but Daniel Sturridge has performed with grace and style at the Olympic Games so far. John Terry was found not guilty in that trial – and no, we’re not going back over that old ground yet again – but faces an FA charge on the same subject. The clubs Champions League win perhaps insulated it against the worst the UEFA FPP might have threatened, but there remains a feeling of suspicion over recent activities relating to the Chelsea Pitch Owners and the clubs desire to leave Stamford Bridge for a bigger stadium. In short, Chelsea FC at this point in time has a degree of enigma about it which may not be resolvable until the new season is well under way. The playing squad has, however, been significantly strengthened, with the arrival of the Hazards from France amongst others, while the combination of strong younger players such as the aforementioned Sturridge and Josh McEachran coming through provides a balance to the ageing senior professionals of the team. On paper at least, this years Chelsea squad looks as well-balanced as any in the Premier League.
As with the other clubs at the top of table, how Chelsea end their season may well come to depend upon the fortunes of others, and several of the other clubs that finished last season near the top of the table are proving as enigmatic as Chelsea have seemed of late. There is certainly something in the air at Old Trafford, where the Glazer Familys summer IPO is causing considerable discontent amongst supporters, and Arsenal don’t look likely to be significantly stronger than they were last season if Robin Van Persie leaves as expected. With this in mind (and Manchester City likely to start the season at least as strong as they ended last sesson), it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that Chelsea might yet end next season in second or third place in the Premier League although, as with Arsenal, the domestic cups may provide the best chance of silverware. Defending that Champions League trophy is going to be – as it should be, considering what winning it represents – very difficult indeed. If Roberto Di Matteo could manage that, his place in folklore would surely be secured forever.
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