Old guard of the Bridge seize victory to prolong campaign
Thursday 15 March 2012
It seems a season does not go by without Chelsea's senior players denying they have too much influence, but last night they successfully answered the claim that they have lost their power on the pitch.
Didier Drogba, John Terry and Frank Lampard, the three veterans of the Jose Mourinho era criticised for exerting too much power during the failed tenure of Andre Villas-Boas, all put in heroic performances, and all scored, as Chelsea beat Napoli 4-1 in extra-time to reach the Champions League quarter-finals. The winning goal came from Branislav Ivanovic, who never played under Jose Mourinho but is no young colt himself.
Those players had suffered too many Champions League knock-out traumas at Stamford Bridge to allow another last night. Neither Terry, Lampard, nor Ashley Cole had started the 3-1 first-leg defeat at the San Paolo in Naples, and none were willing to see another turn in the competition snatched away on home turf. Because it is certainly not obvious that Chelsea will qualify for next year's competition through the league.
The previous two years had provided evidence that their effectiveness at the highest level was on the wane due to defeats against Internazionale and Manchester United in 2010 and 2011 respectively, where their cause had been severely dented by losing at Stamford Bridge.
But last night the old veterans played with knowledge of the prize. Drogba was back to his old best, brutally swooping into a diving header for Chelsea's first goal. He went on to produce one of his most complete performances for years, contemptuously throwing off defenders, and hoarding the ball.
Yes, there was the usual Drogba perviousness to pain, and some rather-exaggerated acting, but when he squared the ball for Ivanovic to score the winner, he had the decisive say.
Terry, too, at least until he came off, played the sort of game he plays in his dreams. He spent all night tracking Edinson Cavani, rarely conceding him time or space. For all the doubts over his pace, he was rarely caught out as he fended off the threat of one of Europe's most-feared front-lines.
And, like Terry performances over years gone by, it included a goal. He always was a particularly assertive attacker at the near post, and he bounded to meet Lampard's corner kick to make it 2-0 early in the second half.
Lampard's dead-ball expertise also took in the late penalty which sent the game to extra-time. Four years ago his spot-kick sent Chelsea to the Champions League final, late in a semi-final with Liverpool. The stakes were not quite as high last night, but they were high enough, and it was another tribute to his nerve under pressure.
But it is not 2008. It is certainly not 2004. No-one would suggest that those three, along with Petr Cech, who made a crucial first-half save, or Cole, who defended well and broke forward smartly, or Michael Essien, who smartly restricted Marek Hamsik, represent the distant future of Chelsea.
The problems of the Villas-Boas era – the difficulty of stripping away what has made Chelsea successful for the long-term good – have not been eliminated in one great European night.
The Mourinho generation must still, surely, be edging away from the Stamford Bridge centre stage. With Chelsea planning mass changes this summer they should, at the very least, be playing for their futures for their club: not a position they have been in before.
But there were more pressing issues on Stamford Bridge's mind last night than power politics or waning dynasties. Even the future of Roberto Di Matteo was not the point. There was a football match, an important match against a difficult team, to be won. And, last night, the old guard won it.
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