John Terry has already been through one complete era at Chelsea but on Sunday night he could contemplate the arrival of another one. If the first cycle began 10 years ago at the Millennium Stadium, with the 2005 League Cup win, the second cycle delivered its maiden trophy this weekend, at Wembley. Terry was man of the match each time.
That first trophy set the tone for four more under Jose Mourinho – and years of sporadic success afterwards – and Terry hopes that from Sunday’s victory they can push on to win more and more again. “It was important to get our first trophy together,” Terry said of this new team he is captaining. “I spoke about this being a springboard, like it was when the manager first came in [in 2004-05]. It had that effect then and hopefully it does now.”
Terry had spoken in the build-up to this final of the catalysing effect of that 3-2 defeat of Liverpool when he was the 24-year-old captain of a side Mourinho had just thrown together. Terry said that it “brought the squad closer together”, that it gave them “a taste of what they wanted” and “had a huge impact on confidence and momentum”. All of that should be true with this triumph, too.
While Terry, Didier Drogba and Petr Cech have won it all before, there are players – Nemanja Matic, Kurt Zouma, Diego Costa, Thibaut Courtois, even Oscar and Eden Hazard – who are still learning what is required of them to play at the very top level of the English game, for this team and for this manager.
All the growth and development of the last few years will only be complete if Terry and his team-mates can lift the Premier League trophy this May. Last season they looked, even into April, like probable champions but surprise defeats to Aston Villa, Crystal Palace and Sunderland eventually cost them first place. Mourinho reflected last summer that his team were not ready for what he calls “pressure leadership” or “confrontational leadership”, but their new signings and maturity and the effect of Sunday afternoon should equip them for that now.
Mourinho had tried to stop his players from knowing the score at Anfield on Monday until goalkeeping coach Silvino Louro accidentally broke the news of Liverpool’s win over Manchester City on the team bus. So they found out, but there is no escaping the fact that it would be a catastrophe far beyond last year’s stumble if they were not to win the title this year. Mourinho tried to play that down on Sunday – speaking only of the League Cup, saying the destination of the title was “in the hands of everyone” – but Terry was slightly more forthright.
“We are delighted to see City lose points, but we go again on Wednesday and it’s another tough one,” he said, with Chelsea heading to West Ham United tomorrow night. “It’s a derby but we want the three points. There are no celebrations, nothing, we train on Monday and kick on to Wednesday.”
The comparison between Chelsea and Manchester City is instructive. Mourinho is able to instil an intensity and focus in his players that City lack. The great test for any manager is not just to win a league but then to retain it. Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson remain the only managers to retain the Premier League. Manuel Pellegrini and Arsène Wenger never have. If this is why Mourinho has to pursue his rather unedifying talk about a “campaign” against his side, media bias, referee bias and the rest, then he might argue he is justified by his results.
The mentality, then, is clearly in place for a sustained period at the top of the English game. Manchester City will surely be back next year – that is their pattern – but Mourinho teams, once established, do not need to take seasons off. The challenge for the rest of 2015 and beyond is whether he can add a new approach to a team who are good but not yet great. This Chelsea side can play expansively at home and they can close down games, but they have not yet found a plan to win away against the very best. This season they have drawn at Manchester City and Manchester United, lost at Tottenham and won at Liverpool, when Brendan Rodgers’ side were at their very worst.
If Chelsea are to go up to the next level, to win those games and triumph again in Europe, they are likely to need a further upgrade in midfield. Matic and Cesc Fabregas is an impressive pair for front-foot football, but there are games when Chelsea need more control in the middle and, as good as he was on Sunday, Zouma may not be the long-term answer there. If they could find an experienced, deep-lying midfielder this summer – one better than Jon Obi Mikel – then they would have another way of playing, one that could bring them the away results to turn them from a good team to a great one.
There is time and money enough for that and if Chelsea go shopping this summer they may look for another natural goal-scorer to take some weight from the shoulders of Diego Costa. But Mourinho, as he said last month, feels settled at Chelsea and if last season was an admirable disappointment then this year is setting the team up for future glory.
“It’s the first time I am in a club where I don’t think about the next step,” he said. “Before I was always thinking about what to do next. In Italy: what do I do next? Madrid: what do I do next? This is the first time that, for me, the next is Chelsea unless Mr Abramovich tells me he’s had enough.”
Chelsea are the most stable that they have been for some time. The return to the successes of Mourinho’s first spell is on the horizon. It is difficult to imagine what might stop them.
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