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Blues to answer questions after CL final
It was the oddest of atmospheres as Chelsea finished off their Premier League campaign with a game that had all the intensity of a summertime kickabout on the beach.
A full house at Stamford Bridge was in attendance, but it spoke volumes for the intensity felt by the crowd that the biggest cheers of the afternoon for both sets of supporters concerned the potential relegation of local rivals (Blackburn ended up hooting at Bolton’s demise, while Chelsea had hoped for QPR to tumble). With the Champions League final round the corner, a nothing game was perfect.
The impending showpiece against Bayern Munich was obviously at the forefront of everybody’s minds. Virtually every name Roberto Di Matteo expects to pen on his team sheet next weekend was rested against Blackburn, and quite right too.
Didier Drogba and Fernando Torres did see a slice of the action – which was a big risk really, considering an injury picked up in an irrelevant game would have been calamitous in terms of Champions League preparations – but luckily they came through unscathed.
When the likes of Petr Cech, Frank Lampard and Juan Mata came onto the pitch it was only at the end to wave to the fans in their jeans. It was the same for David Luiz and Gary Cahill, the two central defenders whom Chelsea are desperate to patch up quickly enough to find their fitness in time for the trip to Germany.
Seldom can the Chelsea fans have been so pleased to see important players in their home clothes. They need to be as rested as possible before they get kitted up in blue again. As Di Matteo pointed out afterwards, it has been an exhausting period. “The fixture list we had was crazy,” said the Italian. “We’ve been playing every three days since the first game I’ve been in charge. It’s been demanding, challenging, what we had to do. Other teams played six, seven, eight games less than us in the same period.”
Up in his executive box, Roman Abramovich watched on with a carefree smile. Like most people who root for Chelsea, the cup distractions (with the FA Cup already in the bag) have been a wonderful way of papering over the cracks that damaged the season to the point of a worst ever league finish in the Abramovich era.
Although they have stabilised, and been thrilled by the cup runs, since Di Matteo took over from Andre Villas-Boas, there are some big issues which need addressing. Sixth position, without realistically being in the title race at any stage, and a points total that is 25 points below the top two from Manchester? Patently not good enough for Chelsea.
The final statistics are, by the standards that have been set since their Russian backer came in to revolutionise the club, alarming. Ten league defeats, and not far off 50 goals conceded, epitomises why this will be an interesting summer behind the scenes. There are a number of key personnel issues which need resolving.
Most crucially, we will soon find out whether or not Di Matteo is trusted to continue the good work which turned a dire season into one which may yet end up as historic.
With Didier Drogba expected to depart as his contract has run down, John Terry and 34-year-old midfielder Frank Lampard not getting any younger and Michael Essien struggling to find his form of old, Chelsea will need strengthening. Even though Di Matteo is encourged by what he has seen from the squad in the past few months, the Premier League competition only increases the pressure to improve.
“I think there’s a very good group here; a lot of quality. But the other teams they seem to be strengthening all the time as well,” he noted. “It’s not just one team. A lot of teams are in the race for the title and the Champions League places.”
The emergence of Ramires as a high-calibre driving midfielder has been a major plus for Chelsea this season. Gary Cahill is settling nicely after his winter move from Bolton. David Luiz, until his injury, was beginning to play with a little more discipline. So even in a turbulent campaign, the experience gained by some of the newer players who are becoming central figures is useful.
But now is not the time for a detailed analysis of what went on at Chelsea this season, for better and for worse. Not when the countdown to the Champions League final is ticking with mounting excitement.
Despite the venue, Di Matteo is billing the final as a “50/50” affair. As the young coach goes into this most exciting of weeks, he could not be any more relaxed. And that is what he will transmit to his team. He is so unflappable, he even sounded cool when asked if this would be the biggest game of his career. “Maybe,” he offered ambivalently. “I would have to think about it.”
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