Dead men dancing

They thought it was all over... how Chelsea's blue-bloods kicked off week of the comeback
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The Independent Online

From way up in the corporate boxes at the Clock End, the cries echoed around a Highbury in which only the Chelsea followers remained. "John Terry, you're a giant," they chorused as the Chelsea players filed outto the team bus. The young captain, constructed of similar stout yeoman stock as Tony Adams, who once ruled the turf below, was the principal performer, but this was a night on which virtually all the English Blue-Bloods had prospered: Terry, Frank Lampard, and substitute Joe Cole in a late cameo. Even Wayne Bridge, whose performances, frankly, don't always equate with the stature of an England international. Only the normally dependable Scott Parker, strangely, appeared fatigued before his eventual substitution at half-time.

From way up in the corporate boxes at the Clock End, the cries echoed around a Highbury in which only the Chelsea followers remained. "John Terry, you're a giant," they chorused as the Chelsea players filed outto the team bus. The young captain, constructed of similar stout yeoman stock as Tony Adams, who once ruled the turf below, was the principal performer, but this was a night on which virtually all the English Blue-Bloods had prospered: Terry, Frank Lampard, and substitute Joe Cole in a late cameo. Even Wayne Bridge, whose performances, frankly, don't always equate with the stature of an England international. Only the normally dependable Scott Parker, strangely, appeared fatigued before his eventual substitution at half-time.

On a European night like no other, in a European week in whichReal Madrid and Milan suffered calamity, there was sufficient poise when Chelsea were under assault, and resourcefulness when they were within range of Jens Lehmann, from the visitors' home-born players to gratify not only Claudio Ranieri but the watching Sven Goran Eriksson. In his role as England coach, of course.

We are told that Roman Abramovich voiced his admiration, albeit in a rather perverse fashion. Something may have been lost in translation, but one can only assume the Chelsea owner was not serious when he spoke of his team's "Russian character to hold on, to fight, to win". One speculated what he could have had in mind, apart from a private joke. Perhaps a reference to Arsenal's French connection, and an allusion to Napoleon's retreat from Moscow? Anyway, while it is true that this triumph was founded on an indomitable spirit, if not always of the purest quality, Abramovich should have been well advised by now that the exhibition was quintessentially English.

Lampard's refusal to be intimidated by the reputation of Patrick Vieira in this, the England man's 55th game this season, and Terry's success in negating the potency of Thierry Henry, José Antonio Reyes, Robert Pires and Fredrik Ljungberg, who at times descended on him and William Gallas as irritatingly as wasps around a jam pot, epitomised a display that will have not gone unnoticed elsewhere in Europe - notably in Monaco.

As Lampard put it succinctly: "We worked hard. We had a plan. We were determined. We played well." The irony, of course, is that the pair who will lead Chelsea's advance further into Europe and who, if Eriksson is of shrewd mind, should represent their country against France in England's opening Euro 2004 contest in Portugal in two months' time, were both at Stamford Bridge well before the Russian's Revolution.

There have been one or two cynical voices since Tuesday night, suggesting that ultimately money had talked: all of that £120m which Abramovich has thrust into his investment so far. Perhaps. But those voices should recall that, of Chelsea's starting line-up on Tuesday, no fewer than six of the outfield players were under Claudio Ranieri's command before Abramovich's arrival: Lampard, Terry and Gallas, and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Mario Melchiot and Eidur Gudjohnsen. That sextet were joined by another after the interval, Jesper Gronkjaer, a frustrating performer at times but here making a vital contribution on both flanks.

Significantly, of the Abramovich era major-money signings, only Claude Makelele and Bridge really took the eye. Damien Duff had one of his less convincing games. Adrian Mutu and Hernan Crespo, who replaced Hasselbaink late on, were on the bench.

Some observers also relish the notion that the players secured victory for their beleaguered boss. It fits so neatly into the latest morality play: How The West (Of London) Was Won. Of course, there will always be someone like Duff to confirm that impression. "The gaffer's been brilliant with us all season," the Irish international reflected. "We all love him to bits. That's why everyone was a bit emotional in the dressing room. Hopefully, we can win something for him this season. Everybody knows it hasn't been nice, the way he has been treated. All we can do is go out and let our football do the talking."

However, the true thinking within the Chelsea camp is probably best articulated by Hasselbaink, who declared: "The players want to do it first for themselves, and if they do it for themselves the boss will benefit from it." The Dutchman, whose immediate future is probably as uncertain as Ranieri's, despite his wide-eyed assertion: "I want to play for Chelsea. If I can't do that, I will cry. But then I have to do it somewhere else", also denounced the pre-match contention that Arsenal would prevail because they "bonded" better with each other.

That had been a persistent theme. On the drive to Highbury, I listened as Radio 5 Live introduced a fellow who appeared to be a sports psychologist, and invited him to discuss the game from his particular perspective. In somewhat smug terms, he swiftly described Arsenal's FA Cup semi-final defeat by Manchester United as a mere blip, and said that the wonderful professor of Highbury, Arsène Wenger, would swiftly rectify matters. It sounded more like wishful thinking than science. His argument was that Arsenal were "a family". By implication, presumably, Chelsea were merely a group of expensively accumulated, disconnected individuals.

Hasselbaink offered the best response to that theory afterwards. "Did it look like we were a lot of individuals tonight?" he retorted sharply. Well, no, but wasn't that surprising considering that it was the Arsenal spirit which was renowned, not Chelsea's? "We don't have to talk about our spirit," he countered. "We know we have it; we know we stick with each other. We kept on believing and even when we were losing 1-0, we stayed calm. We believed that we were going to do it."

That faith, with the domestic championship all but now beyond them following Thierry Henry's demolition of Liverpool on Friday, will be crucial.

"The Fall of the Gods" - as one Italian newspaper described Milan's departure, although it was a headline equally relevant to Real Madrid or Arsenal - has despoiled the competition of many of its more lustrous talents. Chelsea undoubtedly boast the best of what remains; hence their installation as favourites. As Lampard enthused: "We know there is no end to what we can do with a squad as good as the one we have." He added: "This is the greatest result I've been involved in, against the best team in the land. We outbattled them in the second half, and that's a credit to us, because Arsenal are renowned for being tough. We have learnt as a team from our defeats."

Ranieri will have to ensure there is circumspection not conceit within his personnel. What Monaco's on-loan Fernando Morientes did to Madrid, the club who keep his registration, he could reproduce against the Blues. And Didier Deschamps would "love it, just love it", to borrow that Keeganism, if his outsiders could eliminate one of his former teams, Chelsea.

In the other semi-final, Jose Mourinho's Porto, the Portuguese league leaders, have both form and history - as former European Cup victors in 1987 - in their favour; Javier Irureta's Deportivo luxuriate in the sheer confidence injected by what they inflicted on Milan.

Lampard is conscious that character and coaching prowess will be the determining factors against Monaco. As the England midfielder acknowledged: "It looks a better draw against Monaco [as opposed to Madrid]. But it's a semi, and you don't get easy games at that stage. It's a great opportunity; the semi should be two great occasions for young players like myself."

For himself and for Terry, two players who have truly come of age as Ranieri's young retainers amid the creation of this New Chelsea.

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