UEFA Champions League 2012: Aged Chelsea keen to put age before beauty against Barcelona
The days when people said Chelsea could no longer progress with a core of Didier Drogba, John Terry and Frank Lampard have passed – to be replaced by nights when all agree that there can be no glory without them.
At the heart of the problem two months ago, the old guard are now the solution again as Chelsea confront a familiar conundrum: how to beat the formidable Barcelona in a Champions League knockout round.
It may be only an intermission before a big summer clearout, but there could be no hope of Chelsea snuffing out Lionel Messi’s luminous gang without the spirit and the toughness of Terry, Lampard and Drogba, even if Fernando Torres is selected ahead of Drogba at centre-forward in Wednesday night’s first leg at Stamford Bridge.
These three have run up 98 years in age and 240 Champions League appearances. Drogba has 37 goals in the competition and Lampard 22.
Elsewhere across the team’s heartland Ashley Cole has seen action in this tournament on 92 occasions and Michael Essien has played 67 times. No wonder Drogba said after Sunday’s emphatic FA Cup semi-final win over Spurs: “We’ve had quite a few big games since I have been here so we know more or less how to approach them, how to play them, and we try to give this experience to the new players with less experience.”
Barcelona’s memories of Chelsea all feature the power and muscularity of the men Jose Mourinho built two Premier League title-winning sides around: the leaders of a group Andre Villas-Boas was hired to consign to history.
Terry still had his uses, as yeoman-in-chief, but Lampard, who spoke on Tuesday of “mixing a powerful, organised, disciplined game with attacking football”, was supposedly symptomatic of the more lumpy style Villas-Boas was handed a mandate to phase out.
Yet here they come again: Lamps, Drog and JT, for an assignment more daunting than any of the eight encounters between these clubs since 2005.
Why so? Because Chelsea have regressed since the angry opera of the 1-1 draw here in 2009 while Barcelona have added ball-hounding and maturity to their kaleidoscopic passing.
On the Stamford Bridge turf on Tuesday night the old boys watched Roberto Di Matteo point to parts of the pitch where the world’s best team will attack in swarms and then heard him slap his clipboard to start the training session.
The crack sent Terry and Lampard off together at a jog. The Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard of the South, this partnership was quickly restored by Di Matteo: the simplest and most obvious political act open to the caretaker.
The oldest virtues are back in vogue. The future has been postponed.
Chelsea are poised between redemption and calamity. Another FA Cup final appearance, and the last four of the Champions League, disguise regression in the domestic title race. In the opposite camp here on Tuesday night was the coach who best embodies the fantasy pursued by Roman Abramovich when he hired Villas-Boas: the dream of reinvention, of speed and constant entertainment.
Almost all the clashes of the last seven years featured the players Di Matteo will rely on as Barcelona return to London for the first time since their demolition of Manchester United in last year’s final. Way back in 2005, in the second round, Lampard and Terry scored in the 4-2 win at Stamford Bridge. A year later, Terry put through his own net in London and Lampard scored in added-time in Catalonia. In the following campaign’s group phase, Drogba scored home and away and Lampard struck in the 2-2 draw at Camp Nou.
In an infamous semi-final of only two goals and a refereeing fiasco in 2009, Essien scored Chelsea’s ninth-minute opener and Drogba became YouTube royalty with his “It’s-a-disgrace” rap, delivered in flip-flops. The sense of injustice from that night competes with the anguish from the penalty shootout defeat against Manchester United in Moscow in the club’s chamber of mental horrors.
Barcelona won on away goals against a Chelsea XI more robust than this one. Nicolas Anelka, Alex and Michael Ballack were also on duty three years ago, alongside Cole, Terry, Essien, Drogba and Lampard. And yet, working from memory, Chelsea arrive in their sixth Champions League semi-final in nine years, at the end of their most chaotic campaign of the Abramovich era.
“With Villas-Boas they played more from the back, trying to keep possession. Now with Di Matteo they’ve gone back to the Chelsea we saw a few years ago, with counter-attacks and long balls, using Drogba, or the No 9, as a reference,” said Barcelona’s Cesc Fabregas here, providing a summary as neat as his team’s distribution.
Villas-Boas was sacked on March 4 and Di Matteo’s record is nine wins, two draws and a 2-1 defeat at Manchester City, in 12 games. This season Lampard became the first to score 10 times or more in nine successive Premier League seasons. Drogba has missed only one of the eight games between these sides since 2005. All those facts point to a reinstatement of the deepest Chelsea values. Or, as the Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola said on Tuesday night, we are observing “the same spirit, the same soul, the same foundation”. But time’s hooves still clatter. Lampard is 33, Terry 31 and Drogba 34. Cole is 31 and Essien and Petr Cech are in the last days of their twenties.
No one in this kitchen cabinet can be sure who the next manager will be or who will call the shots by August. All the signs are that Abramovich will revive the cull. The clock alone says that he must.
Trying to rewrite the side’s identity (as Villas-Boas and Luiz Felipe Scolari did) is doomed. The entrenched personality of this side will not allow it. These abstractions are pushed aside for a few days now while the politicians Villas-Boas tried to tame regain their hold on power.
It worked in the FA Cup and it has patched things up in a league now dominated by the Manchester clubs. Now it has to work against Barcelona, as Chelsea seek to put age before beauty.