Word of Chelsea’s famous victory at Camp Nou has probably reached every football fanatic on the planet by now. Indeed, it seemed to be an improbable outcome as Chelsea started the tie as underdogs. Many were expecting to see an ‘El Classico’ finale to this years Champions League and the possibility of Barcelona successfully defending their title – a feat that has never been achieved in the UEFA Champions League. Against all expectations, however, Chelsea overcame Barcelona 3-2 on aggregate in an epic semi-final tie.
I’m not going to rant about the match statistics and how Barcelona dominated possession or the enormous difference between the two sides in terms of shots on target or refereeing decisions, which I’m sure you’re all familiar with. Rather, I wish to pay tribute to the sheer resilience and self-belief displayed by Chelsea and analyze what made them tick.
Forty-three minutes into the second leg, the Blues looked down and out. Gary Cahill had been forced to retire due to injury early in the game and Captain John Terry had been sent off for a seemingly innocuous challenge. Barcelona seemed to be cruising to a comfortable victory 2-0 up and looked good against a side fielding ten men with no center backs.
What Pep Guardiola couldn’t have accounted for was Chelsea’s never-say-die attitude and determination to win. Chelsea’s incredible counter attacking display and disciplined defense saw them overcome the two goal deficit and draw level with the Catalans, to secure a place in the finals against all odds. Critics who dismissed their first leg victory as a stroke of luck, will have to eat their words after the result at Camp Nou.
So, what really has been the difference between Chelsea now and the Chelsea we saw two months ago? The obvious answer that comes to mind is Roberto Di Matteo.
The calm, composed and unassuming demeanor of Di Matteo has clearly rubbed off on the players. Chelsea are playing with the belief and confidence that they did not seem to posses during the chaotic reign of the flamboyant Andre Villas Boas, who seemed to have an unsettling effect on the team.
Di Matteo has been consistent with the 4-2-3-1 formation and has been prudent and decisive in deciding team selections and making substitutions as opposed to Villas Boas’s constantly changing tactics and often nonsensical substitutions. While the latter looked to revamp the entire squad and wanted to change the industrious style and mentality of the squad to a more eye-catching Barcelona-esque style of play, Di Matteo knows how important it is to stick to your strengths and bring the best out of your players.
The most important difference between the two Chelsea managers is trust. AVB had abandoned players like Lampard, Terry, Drogba and Cech who form the core of the Chelsea squad, therefore creating a rift between the dressing room and the managerial staff, which contributed directly to their lackadaisical performances throughout his reign and engendered a gloomy atmosphere around the Bridge.
On the other hand Di Matteo wasted no time in earning back the trust of the players, assuring Lampard & co of their place in the clubs future. In doing so, he brought back the resilience, ambition and spirit that Chelsea have been known for.
Having been a former Chelsea player himself, Di Matteo (like Guardiola), is in a better position to understand the players’ mentality, style of play and the sentiments of the fans, than Villas Boas probably ever will be.
In two short months, Chelsea have transformed a dreadful and seemingly hopeless season into a potentially historic one and Roberto Di Matteo is on the verge of making the transformation from a legendary Chelsea player to a legendary Chelsea manager.
The Champions League final in Munich is going the be a tough affair as the Blues will be missing four of their main players in Terry, Ramires, Ivanovic and Mireles through suspension and will have to show the same grit and determination they showed against Barca to fulfill their dream of winning the Champions League and hand owner Roman Abramovic that illusive trophy.