Money can buy you a large yacht - but not a European title
Thursday 06 May 2004
Warm sunshine alternated with driving hail and heavy showers of rain in this area late yesterday afternoon, a reminder that the Almighty is a Tinkerman, too. The madly changeable weather was an appropriate metaphor for the evening of mixed emotions that was about to unfold. It might also have offered some consolation to Claudio Ranieri as he prepares to leave Chelsea, perhaps for the more appealing climates of Rome or Madrid.
Even on sunny days on the training ground, the Italian wraps up as if he is about to scale the north face of the Eiger.
Chelsea had a different mountain to climb last night, although in the 21st minute they were given a set of grappling irons when Jesper Gronkjaer, for months criticised for the poverty of his crosses, contrived to cross into Flavio Roma's net. The irony escaped nobody. At least, nobody who had spent the season forcefully suggesting that Gronkjaer could not cross Fulham Broadway, which pretty much amounted to everyone in a Fly Emirates shirt.
When Frank Lampard coolly made it 2-0, the Bridge erupted. A deafening chorus of "we're by far the greatest team the world has ever seen," somehow did not sound as preposterous as it did in the days of Mickey Droy. But Chelsea needed more help than the fans could provide, and it did not come from Anders Frisk, the glamourpuss from Sweden who, in stark contrast with Uefa's other leading referee, Pierluigi Collina, always looks as though he comes to football matches with his own personal hair stylist. Mr Frisk - who is also, of course, the only referee to win a Grand National - annoyed the Chelsea faithful by allowing Hugo Ibarra's all-important away goal just before half-time. Carlo Cudicini, the Chelsea goalkeeper, protested vehemently that the Argentinian had used his arm to bundle the ball in. But he had not. Mr Frisk got it right.
What has Chelsea's European adventure taught us? For one thing, that money can buy a very sizeable boat indeed, but not the Champions' League. Not quite. Not yet. It must have been frustrating for Roman Abramovich that he could berth his enormous yacht in Monte Carlo harbour a fortnight ago, secure in the knowledge that his own submarine was on patrol to deter any hostile frogmen, only to watch his team's chances of European glory get holed beneath the waterline.
Still, the huge task facing Chelsea following the 3-1 defeat in the first leg of the semi-final, a task that Fernando Morientes effectively put beyond them 15 minutes into the second half, in no way diminished last night's status as the biggest in the club's history. There is a sepia photograph in the Shed Bar of the Chelsea Village Hotel, showing Ted Drake and Roy Bentley, respectively manager and captain, celebrating the club's one and so far only league championship win, in 1954-55. The memories are sepia-tinted, too, of a time when Chelsea stood at the summit of English football. But now, for all the autographs that Kerry Dixon signed outside the East Stand before the game, it is the immediate future, not the dim or even more recent past, that preoccupies the fans.
The architect of that future still seems likely to be Bobby Robson's former translator Jose Mourinho, whose Porto team will now play Monaco in Gelsenkirchen on 26 May. Mourinho looked on last night, his head doubtless buzzing with what will be and what might be.
Another spectator, the Arsenal player Robert Pires, was presumably more concerned with what might have been. Had Chelsea not beaten Arsenal in the quarter-final, it seems reasonable to assume that Arsène Wenger might have worked out a way of beating his former club, Monaco, to put Arsenal into the final. But it is a big assumption. Monaco remain the top scorers in this season's Champions' League. They have accounted for Real Madrid and now Chelsea, the two most expensively-assembled teams in the world. And last night they defended and counter-attacked admirably against a sometimes rampant Chelsea.
Their fans, too, made their presence felt. Gone are the days when away fans arrive here with their hearts in their mouths and their scarves under their coats. From mid-afternoon the Monaco fans started gathering outside the ground, mingling cheerfully with the home supporters, and especially happy to get occasional glimpses of an old friend from home.
"Ah, du soleil," said a man in a red-and-white shirt.
There was less good cheer among the touts assembled on the Fulham Broadway.
When the touts, with increasing desperation, are buying rather than selling, you know that a big sporting occasion is about to take place. For Chelsea, no occasion was ever bigger. But now the club must turn again to domestic matters, and ensure automatic qualification for next season's Champions' League campaign.
Aptly, the next match at Stamford Bridge is against the relegated Leeds United, on 15 May. That is the same Leeds United who were the last British club to contest a Champions' League semi-final, just three years ago. Fortunes can change dramatically in football, although in petro-chemicals, happily for Chelsea, fortunes only seem to get bigger.
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