Chelsea say thanks to departing Rafael Benitez, but all eyes now point to the return of Jose Mourinho
The Spanish manager delivered the Europa League, but will now make way
When the Chelsea team flight left Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport in the early hours of this morning, at least 15kg heavier than the inward journey by virtue of the Europa League trophy on board, the question being asked was: who was the kid in the post-match celebrations?
One of the club's senior officials went round the players to ask if any of them were related to the child in question, or even if they had recognised him, but it turned out that, Louis Kearns, 11, from Liverpool, had simply taken it upon himself to wander on to the pitch. He shook hands with Michel Platini, had his hair ruffled by Juan Mata and even took part in Chelsea's guard of honour for beaten finalists Benfica.
If Munich last May had been the emotional "pinnacle", as Frank Lampard later described it, then Amsterdam was just a lot more fun. A competition they never planned to be in, a manager they never envisaged having in charge and a game that they did not look like winning at half-time. And yet it all worked out in the end.
"The last couple of years with Chelsea is always drama, always interesting," Branislav Ivanovic, the match-winner in the 93rd minute, said as he reflected on the game. While the victory in the European Cup final last season felt like the closing of a chapter, the last major target accomplished and the end of Didier Drogba's Chelsea career, there was little time in Amsterdam to look back.
There were not the riotous all-night celebrations – no Drogba victory speeches, cigars or jumping into swimming pools – that accompanied the victory in Munich, not with the last Premier League game of the season on Sunday and third place still up for grabs. Instead, the club came back to London overnight, as they would on any other European away game, and the players are back in training this morning.
The announcement of the new one-year contract extension for Lampard came today and his boot sponsors Adidas were permitted on to the Stamford Bridge turf to create an installation of 203 footballs to mark the 203 spots from which he scored his goals for the club. As for the 48 penalties, they were arranged in ascending order from the penalty spot towards the two corners of the goal.
Now that Lampard's deal is public, not exactly a closely-kept secret in the last two months, there is the acknowledgement that a new era is coming and that era will be the second Chelsea reign of Jose Mourinho. The Lampard announcement was delayed in order not to overshadow Benitez's critical last few days in the job, but once the Europa League had been secured it seemed pointless for the club to hang on any longer. As for the official announcement that Mourinho is to return, that is not likely to come until the second week of June.
Officially, Benitez's contract runs out at the end of next month and, as things stand, he is scheduled to take the team for their two lucrative post-season friendlies against Manchester City in St Louis and New York at the end of this month, although if events conspire otherwise, it is not critical that he does so.
There was acknowledgement from the players that Benitez had made some critical interventions against Benfica. "At half-time Rafa spoke with us to change many things," David Luiz said. "He changed some of our positions in the second half. That's why we played better and won the title. He spoke a lot to us to change the intensity."
Juan Mata even credited the interim coach for spotting the weakness in Benfica that led to the winning goal itself. "We did [practice corners]," he said. "Rafa told us we had to aim to the far post, because it was his [the Benfica goalkeeper] Artur's weakest place. I just tried to put the ball there and Ivanovic did the rest."
But it was Mourinho and the new era at Chelsea that will be uppermost in the minds of the squad when they return to training today to prepare for the game against Everton on Sunday. When Lampard considered his club's failure to stay the pace in the title race for the last two seasons he identified the requirement to "get back to that battering ram, winning mentality", a mentality that permitted Chelsea to "win games 1-0 even when we weren't at our best."
"It's a bit like a magic recipe that's hard to explain," he said. "It's a lot of mental work on that. You have to be able to go out even when not at your best and grind out results. It's funny because when we won under Jose before we got criticised for the fact that we were so dogged. It doesn't mean taking away the beautiful football but you have to have a balance.
"I feel it's a huge priority to be challenging for the league again next season as well get through the Champions League group stages. As a fan, the Premier League is your bread and butter. It will be a big task but it's the main one."
The most telling remark from Benitez over the last three days was his comment to a Spanish radio station on Wednesday night that "Chelsea will be much better next season because they will spend £100m on three or four players."
In different circumstances – very different circumstances – he would like to have been part of it. But even Wednesday's win cannot change the course that Chelsea have now plotted.
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