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Chelsea sails through murky waters

Petr Cech (L) and David Luiz (Photo by Scott Heavey/Getty Images)
Petr Cech and David Luiz are traveling with Chelsea in their US tour.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.




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It looks for all the world like the Chelsea players don’t have a single care. Not one thing to worry about, as a handful of first teamers joke and frolic and goof their way through a festive clinic with young FC Harlem players in spite of the unseasonably blustery weather.

As if they hadn’t just lived through yet another tumultuous season with the mid-season firing of manager and fan favorite Roberto Di Matteo and an outcry among the hardcore supporters over his interim replacement, Rafa Benitez. As if their previous season hadn’t been just as chaotic, with Andre Villas-Boas’s stylistic and operational revolution inciting revolt among the senior players and leading to his own premature firing and replacement with Di Matteo. As if they hadn’t dropped out of the title race far too early and flamed out of the UEFA Champions League in the group stage. As if they aren’t about to see another manager installed for the eighth time in less than six years, doubtless unloosing another cascade of new player acquisitions, competitors for their jobs.

No, on the eve of their second friendly with Manchester City at Yankee Stadium (Live, FOX Soccer, Saturday, 5:30 p.m. ET), they seem unbothered and their minds unfettered. None of the commotion seems to register. And consequently, this is very elucidating.

It goes some way in explaining why Chelsea wins things even when all is not well – when most everything is not well, in fact. Why, through the seven managers that have come and gone increasingly quickly ever since Jose Mourinho, the last manager to make it through more than two seasons, left in Sept. 2007, they have managed to win the Premier League and three FA Cups regardless. How it won the Champions League last season, and the UEFA Europa League this year. How they failed to finish in the top-three of their unforgiving league just once through all those years of upheaval post-Mourinho, whose tenure was, in truth, just as circus-like.


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“Sometimes in sport there are things you can hardly explain,” says Chelsea’s genial goalkeeper Petr Cech, a beacon of stability in the back since arriving in 2004. “In some clubs there is great stability and they never win anything. We seem to have every season a new manager with new success.”

There is an explanation, however. “Mentally to fight any situation which comes and that skill to adapt to new changes, re-set and carry on is something we’ve learned in recent years,” says Cech, when pressed. “And it’s a great skill to have because as you can see it’s been bringing us success, although it’s not an ideal situation. We always seem to find a way out of the difficult times.”

Chelsea has learned to cope with the constant swirl of managerial and personnel turnover, anchored down by a veteran core left over from Mourinho’s day which offers a stability within the squad when the hierarchy above it is ever-shifting. Where most successful clubs thrive amid stability, Chelsea excels in chaos.

“It’s normal to have a lot of turbulence, a lot of pressure,” says defender David Luiz. “We stay together [with] a strong mentality and win some titles, that’s why Chelsea is a big club.”

Luiz points to an accountability that exists within the locker room that helps them weather all those storms. “Everyone is honest with everyone, so you can speak eye to eye and don’t need to be scared when you need to speak bad[ly of teammates],” he says. “When you are honest with everyone you can overcome bad things.”


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Striker Fernando Torres argues that the drama is overblown. “At Chelsea the last couple of seasons it looks always a bit worse than it is, really,” he says. “It looks like the season is negative – nobody talks anything good about what Chelsea is doing. But at the end of the day it’s about results and the results are good. Chelsea has won three trophies in two seasons, that’s not bad.”

Mourinho, who left the club after feuding with billionaire owner Roman Abramovic, is expected to step back into the fray, with the English media anticipating an imminent announcement. Cech figures his previous stint will help the re-tread manager to settle things down. “He has a big advantage of knowing a lot of people from the club, the way the club works,” the goalkeeper says. “He knows the Premier League very well. But I think the club has changed and moved on in the past six years. We have had a lot of success and have gained a lot of experience. It might have taken us a step forward. He will find a club that is a step ahead of the club he first joined.”

Whether a newfound calm will descend over the club following Mourinho’s expected return is to be seen. The Portuguese, who announced himself as “a special one” upon his first appointment, isn’t known for his restraint. He speaks loudly, boastfully and often. His bold talk can act as a helpful decoy to the team, which can find peace in his shadow. But it’s just as prone to destabilizing a club.

“I think the ideal scenario will be if the manager comes and has a lot of success and stays for four years,” says Cech. Fat chance. No Chelsea manager has completed four seasons since Dave Sexton managed to hang around from Oct. 1967 through Sept. 1974.

Still, that’s hardly gotten in the way of Chelsea achieving.

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