It was was some exhibition, in the circumstances. With the eyes of the football world upon them, and their opponents suitably fired up, they were determined not to abandon their principles. If this game was to determine the title, it would be contested in a fashion that made the prize worth winning. Having said all that, it is only fair to say that Chelsea started pretty well, too.
And then came the first penalty, and the sending-off, and the home crowd overcame its dread that an early lead would not be guarded with due care and attention. The champions-elect could relax, and play like champions. The party could begin.
Only Didier Drogba proved reluctant to join in, initially consumed by a comical tantrum as Frank Lampard put away the penalty with his usual insouciance. Lampard had suggested that he might surrender any such opportunity to Drogba, with respect to his duel with Wayne Rooney for the Golden Boot. But Carlo Ancelotti, their manager, decided that any such complacency would have to be reserved for a more comfortable lead, and Drogba did not disguise his chagrin.
He barely broke into a trot for the rest of the half, and some home fans behind the bench angrily urged Ancelotti to take him off. But if this vignette was significant for anything, other than a lack of dignity, it was that such eruptions of simmering egotism are no longer characteristic of the regime here.
True, the threadbare pennant of Portsmouth will presumably remain fixed to every neutral mast at Wembley next Saturday. No doubt that reflects too ingenuous a grasp of the different financial excesses condensed by the FA Cup final, but it can hardly be helped. The Pompey chimes have become the heart-breaking knell of a great maritime city. And these have long contained and defined our nation, as well as opened exchange with other lands. In the same way, however, the character of a capital will always be enriched by cosmopolitan migrants and ambassadors. And this latest blend of cultures, under Ancelotti, has produced a footballing carillon in which only the most obstinate and graceless of rivals could fail to acknowledge a joyful tenor.
In exorcising that poltergeist of chaotic emotions, Jose Mourinho, Ancelotti has restored another kind of chic to the King's Road. The last time they won the title, it was vested largely in the wardrobe and polymathy of the manager. Ancelotti has reversed that dynamic energy. His team has redressed the prolonged absence of its centre of gravity, Michael Essien, by shedding its inhibitions. (This was the fourth time they have scored seven or more in the League this season.) And their boss, simultaneously, has altered the flow of energy around the bench; he has exuded calm and dignity, where Mourinho relied on passion and provocation.
True, it may not be the most welcome of ironies to Roman Abramovich that Mourinho in turn inverted the balance of the CV that brought Ancelotti here in the first place. He was hired as a dual winner of the Champions League, not as the author of one Serie A title in eight seasons with Milan. Instead he looks like surpassing Mourinho on the home front, delivering Chelsea's only League-FA Cup double at the first attempt – but only after his team proved bereft of solutions when his predecessor's latest band of brothers took control of their meeting here in February.
So it is that yesterday may yet be viewed by the club's patron as a satisfying dénouement to one, rather chaotic, chapter – after half a dozen managers in five seasons – rather than as the decisive twist in the saga. This may well have proved a final bow here for the likes of Michael Ballack and Joe Cole, and Ancelotti will now seek some fresh alchemy between some globally resonant signing, such as Pato or Higuain, and an emerging generation centred on Gael Kakuta. (Before the trophy was presented yesterday some even younger players paraded the FA Youth Cup, won last Tuesday.)
At the same time, it surely exaggerates the club's demographic to talk of its senior personnel as though they are wheeled out in the scarlet livery of the real Chelsea Pensioners. For now, this core of "ageing" players demonstrably remains in its pomp.
True, they have given us few genuine folk heroes – even among some whose fidelity survived the "good old days" when Chelsea's glamorous image and instincts were seldom substantiated in the trophy cabinet. Many loyal Chelsea fans have concluded that class, in John Terry and Ashley Cole, is confined to the perimeter of a pitch. But here, again, is a tribute to the restrained authority of Ancelotti. He allowed the season's shabby distractions to dissipate back into the froth that bore them. Instead his champions have been men whose limitations had seemed well established: the likes of Branislav Ivanovic, Alex, even Nicolas Anelka and, above all, Florent Malouda.
This, after all, is essentially the same team whose stagnant third place last year had seemed to corroborate Sir Alex Ferguson's musings about Chelsea's need for fresh blood. This time round, however, the blue party had a clearer mandate than the narrow margin implied. They accumulated 18 points from 18 among the "Big Four", and conceded a solitary, bundled goal by Federico Macheda.
Ferguson reckons Manchester United's season foundered on "one bad week" and considers their absence from the Champions League final as a "travesty". But that word could only have been properly applied, had Chelsea hesitated yesterday before their palpable destiny.
That was never going to happen, under the phlegmatic, magisterial Ancelotti. So Rooney had an untimely injury; and likewise, Robin van Persie. But we have not heard a syllable of self-pity from Ancelotti about missing Essien, or both the Coles, or others during the Africa Cup of Nations.
In the end, the crowd could cheer in delight as Ancelotti ventured a clenched fist of triumph, in undiluted self-mockery, as they sang his name. His team had been ruthless, and serene, but largely free of any undignified air of entitlement. Drogba, when finally given his penalty, had the wit to jog across and give his boss a contrite embrace. He ended up with his precious Golden Boot, but even he could see that this was as much about the boot room.
RACE FOR THE TITLE: five key games from the 2009-10 SEASON
*8 Nov 2009: Chelsea 1 Man United 0
Chelsea captain John Terry heads home a late Frank Lampard free kick to put the Blues five points clear of Arsenal and United. The visitors dominated proceedings but failed to make the breakthrough. Chelsea went on to win 3-0 at Arsenal later in the month.
*20 Feb 2010: Everton 3 Man United 1
Less than a fortnight after Chelsea crash to defeat at Goodison Park, United follow suit. Dimitar Berbatov gave the champions the lead, only for Diniyar Bilyaletdinov to level within three minutes. A below-par second-half display is punished as further goals from Dan Gosling and Jack Rodwell wrap up victory for the Toffees. Chelsea's later win at Wolves opened up a four-point gap.
*27 Mar: Chelsea 7 Aston Villa 1
Carlo Ancelotti's side make a strong display of title-winning intent by ripping apart a Villa side who held the best defensive record in the league. Lampard scores four in the rout.
*3 Apr: Man United 1 Chelsea 2
Joe Cole makes the most of a surprise start by flicking in his second goal of the season. Didier Drogba doubles the lead from an offside position before substitute Federico Macheda hits a consolation but Chelsea move two points clear.
*11 Apr: Blackburn 0 Man United 0
Sir Alex Ferguson's side miss the chance to move to the top of the table, dropping two valuable points at Ewood Park without the injured Wayne Rooney. Berbatov proves particularly wasteful as United end a point behind Chelsea having played a game more.
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