Five Champions’ League semi-finals in the past six years. As Chelsea’s newly appointed manager, Carlo Ancelotti, pointed out in his first interview, that is a wonderful achievement. However, it clearly isn’t quite good enough. The fact that those five semi-finals have only resulted in one ill-fated final appearance must be a source of incredible frustration for Chelsea’s billionaire owner, Roman Abramovich, and the club’s supporters – although a little less so for them, perhaps.
The reason the long-standing Chelsea fans might be a little more philosophical about ‘only’ reaching one final in five attempts is that many of them are probably still only just getting used to challenging for honours at all. Until 1997, when Chelsea won the F.A. Cup, the club had won nothing for 26 years – unless you include the old Second Division title. Chelsea’s fortunes in the 1980s, after they had been bought by Ken Bates for the princely sum of £1, slumped to such an extent that they almost found themselves in English football’s third tier.
But how it turned around during the last decade of the century. Even before Abramovich’s arrival in 2003, the process of recovery had started. Managers of the international pedigree of Glenn Hoddle, Ruud Gulli, Gianluca Vialli and Claudio Ranieri all helped establish the club as one of England’s leading outfits and the F.A. Cup was won in 1997 and 2000 and the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup in 1998. The Chelsea of this time were ground breakers in so many ways – with their continental managers and their overseas players particularly – becoming the first club to take the field with a team without a single British or Irish player in a fixture against Southampton in 1999.
So, when the Russian oil magnate brought in Champions’ League winner José Mourinho to take over the team in 2004, almost everyone suspected that ‘the special one’ would produce a special team.
And so it proved. The Premier League was won on two consecutive occasions, as well as the F.A. Cup again and the League Cup (twice). From March 2004, the team embarked on a record-breaking run of 86 matches in which they remained unbeaten at their Stamford Bridge ground.
With some of England’s finest players – John Terry, Frank Lampard, Ashley and Joe Cole – and with some outstanding foreign imports – Didier Drogba, Michael Essien, Michael Ballack and Nicholas Anelka – the world sat and waited for the trophies to continue. And especially for the ‘holy grail’ that Abramovich wanted so much; that Champions’ League.
And yet for the past two seasons Chelsea have flattered to deceive – and frustrated their supporters so much. There are occasions when they are so powerful they overwhelm even the strongest opponents; almost bullying them into submission because of their physical, and mental, superiority. But there seems to have been some fatal flaw in the club’s make-up that has stopped them making that ultimate breakthrough.
Some have said that it’s because some of the overseas players have not been committed enough; but then when they showed their passion and commitment after losing controversially to Barcelona in 2009 those same players were criticised for their lack of sportsmanship.
Some have blamed successive managers for not being able to control ‘big’ players – as if that was ever a problem for someone like Luiz Felipe Scolari.
Some have even blamed Abramovich for either losing patience with Mourinho too quickly in 2007 or apparently losing some of his enthusiasm for the club for a while.
But now, having failed to persuade the admirable Guus Hiddink to remain at the club after his rejuvenation of the team in his short spell in charge, Chelsea have appointed someone who has won the Champions’ League Trophy twice as a player and twice as a manager. Surely, Stamford Bridge – a wonderfully atmospheric ground to watch your football compared to some of the other more ‘soul-less’ stadiums around – is going to be able to witness something only the most optimistic of fans would have dreamed possible twenty short years ago; a team capable of winning the Champions’ League.
If Carlo Ancelotti can’t bring the trophy in, where on earth will they turn next?
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