Chelsea surge creates rebuild conundrum

And then there was one. What a peculiar turn of events.

Two weeks ago Chelsea appeared to be on the verge of their most shambolic season since Roman Abramovich arrived to make the London club a force to be reckoned with. Now they have shaken off their melancholy, enjoyed a rocking party, and are eyeing up three big incentives for the rest of the season – the Champions League, the FA Cup, and a top four finish. And with poetic timing, their new enthusiasm coincides with a little depression hovering over Manchester. United and City tumbled ruefully out of European competition and Chelsea, despite all the stresses and complications they have endured, remain as England’s last club standing.

How about that, then? There were plenty around Stamford Bridge who delighted in sticking a metaphorical finger up at the critics. The celebrations in midweek revealed a club that appears liberated. That is a powerful emotion in sport. Abramovich was seen on the pitch high fiving. This is not normal behavior from the owner who usually watches with an inscrutable expression from his luxury position on high. Chelsea then went back to work at their Cobham training ground buzzing, and wondering what ending they could script for this rollercoaster of a campaign.

Has a corner been turned? The statistics look good so far. If Chelsea beat Leicester in the FA Cup this weekend, and even though tired legs could be a problem they ought to overcome lower league opposition, they will register their fourth successive win since Andre Villas-Boas was consigned to the role of sacrificial lamb. Prior to his sacking, Chelsea’s run of results included three losses and three draws from seven games.

The Napoli game felt particularly cathartic for Chelsea as, in addition to the drama and the significance of the result, the manner of their display reeked of Chelsea’s old values too. They found a relentless energy and spark and drive that reminded their fans of the best of the good old days.

It is far too early to say that everything that was broken is suddenly fixed. Re-qualification for the Champions League remains paramount. To win it, Chelsea would have to beat Benfica, and then quite possibly Barcelona followed by Real Madrid or Bayern Munich. That is a tall order for a team that has been erratic and at times vulnerable, so getting back in as competition victors is a long shot. The domestic campaign also has some considerable hurdles ahead. Once this FA Cup game is out of the way, Chelsea play Manchester City and Tottenham within the space of four days. A little later in the run-in they travel to Arsena and Liverpool in successive away games. Huge challenges lie ahead.

But at least Chelsea can approach them with renewed optimism. The atmosphere, and the team effort, was transformed as they rallied to overturn a 3-1 deficit against Napoli. The old guard, symbolized by the spirited goal-scorers whose names on the scoresheet rolled back the years – Didier Drogba, John Terry, Frank Lampard – have been the subject of both praise and questions since they inspired this revival. On the one hand, they were congratulated for underpinning a performance that, as Terry put it, defined “what Chelsea are made of”. On the other, some critics have wondered why that level of performance was absent in the latter stages of Villas-Boas’ doomed project.

The fascination comes later, at the end of May. The conundrum for Abramovich is whether to abandon his attempt to refresh Chelsea as requested of Villas-Boas, and cling to the renaissance linked to Terry, Lampard, Drogba and the gang for as long as possible. Or does he try again with the job of rebuilding and rejuvenating the team but with a different man at the helm? Has this curious season convinced him that the mistake was in hiring Villas-Boas? Or in principle trying to break up the scene that is synonymous with the success enjoyed under Jose Mourinho? Something didn’t work, and his next move will be intriguing.

For as well as Chelsea’s players have turned their season around, helped along by the new tone set by Roberto Di Matteo and undoubtedly motivated by the ideas of Terry, something behind the scenes was wrong enough for Abramovich to sack Carlo Ancelotti last summer. Something bothered him enough to decide that it was time to shake up the old guard. Has that problem just gone away, or been deferred?

Terry remains a particularly interesting figure in all of this. The power he wields at the club, as its homegrown, longstanding, captain, its figurehead and symbol, now seems almost stronger than ever. The joke in England last week was that Terry behaved like the manager, barking out instructions, while Di Matteo frolicked like a celebrating player, so the lines of command are not entirely clear cut.

The transition between old school Chelsea and some kind of brave new world continues to enthrall.