Salomon Kalou's verdict on his Chelsea team-mate Florent Malouda is short and to the point. "He is the best Chelsea player this season – by far," the Ivorian said this week.
It is a view shared by many within the Chelsea dressing room, who voted Malouda their player of the year after a season in which the Frenchman has blossomed into one of the genuine stars of a very talented team. The emergence of Malouda as a key player has helped put Chelsea just one win away from the Double, and has also saved the club around £40m.
A year ago, Chelsea were close to signing Franck Ribéry, the Bayern Munich winger who keeps Malouda out of the French national team. Not signing Ribéry now looks the best bit of business Chelsea never did. Malouda remains Ribéry's understudy on the international stage, but his performances for Chelsea throughout this season have shown that he could yet unseat his more celebrated rival from the France team during the World Cup.
Malouda admits he has been in the form of his life and puts his improvement down to better fitness and a desire to accept greater responsibility. "This is by far the best football of my career," he said. "The pressure we have had from the beginning of the season has been really intense and I felt I was ready for it.
"I have really enjoyed the big moments of hard pressure. I took responsibility. Maybe that has been the difference between this year and the previous years.
"When you are new, you don't really take responsibility, you just follow. But I wanted to become a leader like I was at Lyons. I talked to the manager and told him that's what I want to do at Chelsea."
Malouda has scored 15 goals but has also added verve and invention to Chelsea's play. He, more than anyone, has flourished since Ancelotti's decision in mid-season to ditch his favoured diamond midfield formation in favour of the 4-3-3 system employed by Chelsea ever since Jose Mourinho's time. Before that switch, Malouda was either in competition with Frank Lampard for a place on the left of the diamond, or with Joe Cole and Deco for the chance to play behind two strikers.
The lack of opportunities led Malouda to accuse Ancelotti of picking certain players regardless of performance in an interview with a French newspaper. Ancelotti did not rise to the bait, but instead challenged the winger to recapture the form that made Chelsea spend £13.5m to recruit him from Lyons in 2007. Malouda has gone even better, by improving so much he has become one of the mainstays of the side.
"It's been my best season, not only in England but of my entire career," Malouda said. "[When I arrived] there were a lot of changes at the club. I was new here and I needed time to learn things and understand how things go at this club. But I never lost my confidence even during my first two years. I am really proud of what I have brought to the club.
"My fitness was not the best of my career and I had to improve that. With the experience of my first two years, when I started this season I was really confident that I could prove to everyone that the club was right to choose me. I have enjoyed the big pressure games. I can handle them. I felt like I was ready.
"Every day I train the same way I play, and this season I did not miss one training session. When you are ready and you get on the pitch, you have no doubts and play with full confidence. This is my first season without injuries and maybe that is an explanation also. Maybe that is because of what Ancelotti did and the way he has prepared us."
The Chelsea players celebrated their Premier League triumph on Sunday and Monday, and then on Tuesday they went back to work. The idea that the FA Cup will somehow be an anti- climax after the 8-0 victory over Wigan Athletic that secured the league title last weekend is not one shared by Malouda.
"Right now the FA Cup is our cup, it's at the Bridge and that's where we want to keep it. We have to defend our title," he said. "When you see the way Chelsea have competed in the big competitions against the big clubs, I am really proud. But it's not finished yet and we have the opportunity to make history."
Champs and chumps in FA Cup Finals
Chelsea are the 18th League champions to reach the FA Cup final, 10 went on to lift the Double, seven failed.
*Preston North End (1889), Aston Villa (1897), Tottenham Hotspur (1961), Arsenal (1971, 1998, 2002), Liverpool (1986), Man Utd (1994, 1996, 1999).
Lost Cup final to miss out on Double
*Newcastle United (1905), Sunderland (1913), Manchester Utd (1957, 2007), Liverpool (1977, 1988), Everton (1985).
*Four clubs have retained the FA Cup post-War: Newcastle (1952), Tottenham (1962, 1982), Arsenal (2003)
*This is the first FA Cup final between the champions and a relegated club.
Portsmouth are the fifth relegated finalists. The previous four all lost.
*1926 Bolton 1 Manchester City 0
*1969 Man City 1 Leicester City 0
*1983 Manchester United 4 Brighton & Hove Albion 0 (after a 2-2 draw)
*1997 Chelsea 2 Middlesbrough 0
The road to Wembley
3R: Watford (h) Won 5-0
4R: Preston (a) Won 2-0
5R: Cardiff (h) Won 4-1
6R: Stoke (h) Won 2-0
SF: Aston Villa (n) Won 3-0
3R: Coventry (h) Drew 1-1
3RR: Coventry (a) Won 2-1 [aet]
4R: Sunderland (h) Won 2-1
5R: Southampton (a) Won 4-1
6R: Birmingham (h) Won 2-0
SF: Tottenham (n) Won 2-0 [aet]Reuse content