Barca dreams give Chelsea identity crisis
When Roberto di Matteo screamed “We won it” at Roman Abramovich as Chelsea started their Champions League celebrations, the Blues manager can’t have realised he was signalling the end of an era at Stamford Bridge.
Just over three months after Chelsea’s rollercoaster season reached a memorable peak with the miracle in Munich, much has already changed at the west London club.
Talismanic striker Didier Drogba, the club’s Champions League final hero, is now playing in China, while long-serving stars like Jose Bosingwa and Salomon Kalou have been shown to the exit.
In their place have arrived exciting young talents Eden Hazard, Oscar and Marko Marin, who are expected to transform Chelsea from the battle-hardened group who excelled at grinding opponents into submission into the Premier League’s version of Barcelona.
It is a remarkable transformation for a team crowned European champions and FA Cup winners so recently.
But crucially it is Abramovich, rather than di Matteo, who has been the instigator on this Blue revolution.
The Champions League had often been described as Abramovich’s holy grail, with the Blues owner said to have fallen in love with football from the moment he watched Manchester United and Real Madrid contest an epic encounter at Old Trafford in 2003.
But the enduring memory Abramovich retains from that 4-3 win for United is not Real’s eventual progress to win the tournament, but the exhilaration he felt at watching two teams playing with such poise and inspiration on such a grand stage.
From that moment on, Abramovich, who bought Chelsea later that year, has wanted not just success, but success achieved with the style he witnessed that night in Manchester.
With that in mind, even the sight of Chelsea finally winning the Champions League after a dramatic penalty shoot-out against Bayern Munich in May couldn’t completely satisfy the Russian, who has been casting envious glances at Barcelona’s breathtaking play for several years.
While di Matteo might have felt his team’s epic run, that included a semi-final win over Barcelona was the ultimate achievement, Abramovich begged to differ.
Chelsea’s bloody-minded refusal to accept defeat in tense ties with Napoli, Barca and Bayern deserved immense respect. But it is the subtle skills of Barca’s Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi that Abramovich wants to see when he watches his own team.
And what Abramovich wants, he gets. His love affair with Barca could be seen in his failed attempt to hire their former boss Pep Guardiola — he eventually gave di Matteo a two-year contract — and also his investment of over £60 million on Hazard, Oscar and Marin.
It is those three, together with Juan Mata and Fernando Torres, who will dictate how Chelsea fare now rather than traditional trendsetters John Terry and Frank Lampard.
It is easy to criticism Abramovich for meddling when he should leave team matters to di Matteo, but after Chelsea’s sixth place finish last season — their lowest in Roman era — it is clear something needed to change.
Di Matteo has clearly bought into the idea of a new-Chelsea, talking enthusiastically about tactics on the club’s pre-season tour.
“Moving between lines and rotation can be an attacking threat for us,” he said. “It makes us more difficult to be marked and more unpredictable. However, we also need width in the game so it’s not just always coming between the lines.
“It’s about giving width to the team as well. There aren’t going to be radical changes but, inevitably, we are going to change a bit the way we play with the integration of the new players.” Di Matteo knows last season’s success was a once-in-a-lifetime joyride sparked by a group of seasoned pros aware their time was close to up.
But Abramovich has set the bar even higher this season and the Italian has no choice but to do everything in his power to fulfill his desires, only this time with a Catalan twist.