It’s been five years since Chelsea football club last won a ‘big’ title. It was in the golden season of 2009-10 when the London club achieved the Holy Grail – its first ever treble under Carlo Ancelotti. The season, which saw The Blues beat Manchester United to the league title on the last day of the season; defeat Barcelona at the Santiago Bernabeu to lift their first Champions’ league trophy and deny Portsmouth their second FA cup in three years, was the last they tasted some ‘real’ success.
Since then a lot has changed – Portsmouth is no longer a club, Sir Alex Ferguson is no longer the manager of Manchester United and Roman Abrahamovic is no longer an impatient man. When John Terry lifted the UCL trophy in Madrid, Stamford Bridge changed for the better. Chelsea, with the monkey finally off its back, stabilized. The result of which saw Carlo Ancelotti make the toughest job in club football, his own. The whimsical Russian has persisted with the tactical Italian, even though Chelsea has won just one FA cup in the last five years. The period after the treble has been a period of transformation.
While one Italian had endeared himself to the fans, in not so far away London, another Italian was sacked. Chelsea immediately offered him the role of Reserve Team Coach, and thus Gianfranco Zola returned to a club where he was once voted the ‘greatest player ever’. The treble-winning Chelsea team had many players who now, either did not fit into Carlito’s scheme of things or were on the wrong side of thirty. Over the next two years, Juliano Belletti, Michael Ballack, Deco, Paulo Fereirra, Ricardo Carvalho and Salomon Kalou left Stamford Bridge to pursue the remainder of their careers elsewhere while Gonzalo Higuain joined the Blues.
In his first season, Higuain was not able to adjust to his new surroundings. Perhaps it was the weather or just the physical nature of the English game, but the 35 million pound signing failed to recreate the magic which left many defences in La Liga spellbound. Daniel Sturridge saw this as an opportunity to stake his claim as the third striker, and started to impress, whenever he was called upon by Ancelotti. The young prodigies – Fabio Borini, Gale Kakuta, Jeffery Bruma, Ryan Bertrand and Miroslav Stoch steadily developed under the watchful eyes of Zola. The departure of Ballack had given Michael Essien an opportunity to play further up-field, while the job of defensive midfielder was left to the ever-improving Jon Mikel Obi.
The exodus of experienced players, coupled with legends having their best years behind them dried up the stream of trophies which the Blues had become accustomed to. Didier Drogba was allowed to move to Marseille – a club from where Jose Mourinho had signed him, to enable him to retire gracefully. Nicolas Anelka, after spending five glorious seasons at the London club, also retired. He came to Chelsea as “Le Sulk” but by the time he retired, he had personally ensured that the moniker was erased from people’s memory. In the 2011-12 season, Chelsea finished 3rd in the league behind Arsenal and Manchester United, and lost the FA cup final to Liverpool. Despite the lack of success, the fans were satisfied. Gonzalo Higuain was beginning to find his feet in the Premier League and the future looked bright with Zola nurturing the young Blues, and fans began to sense the start of a legacy of their own. The legacy of Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea.
But when the club in question is Chelsea, it is almost impossible for a fan to enjoy a few incident-free years at a stretch. In the fateful summer of 2012, UEFA issued a statement banning Chelsea from participating in the Champions’ League due to high debt levels and the London club were asked to drastically reduce its financial dependence on their Russian owner if they wanted to continue to compete in the premier European competition. Among other things, this meant that Chelsea FC would not spend over the next couple of years to balance their sheets. They had to rely on Zola’s brigade to take them through this period.
That season, five players from the academy – Gael Kakuta, Fabio Borini, Miroslav Stoch, Ryan Bertrand and Rhys Taylor – graduated to the first team. Ancelotti, after his initial apprehension, shifted to the traditional 4-4-2 formation to suit the talent at his disposal. The Chelsea of 2012-13 season lined up in the following formation:-
Bosingwa Alex/Terry Ivanovic/Bruma Bertrand/Cole
Stoch Essien/Lampard Mikel Kakuta
Alex and Ivanovic were already world-class defenders; flamboyant they may not be, but solid they definitely were. They had the veteran Chelsea captain, John Terry and his student, Jeffery Bruma for cover. Bruma had grown up in awe of JT and his ‘daredevil’ style of defending reminded the regulars in the Mathew Harding stand of the young Terry himself. With Ashley Cole not having the pace he once had, Ryan Bertrand became his natural successor both in the England squad and in Chelsea. The young left-back at that time, was known more for attack than for defence but made up for his defensive short-comings with his raw pace. The heart of the midfield had remained intact, with Essien and Mikel marshalling the proceedings. Miroslav Stoch and the French magician Gael Kakuta occupied the wings. The attack was led by the man Manchester City sold because they thought paying an extra ten thousand pounds for him was ‘unjustified’ and El Papita. The third striker was the little Italian Fabio Borini, whom Ancelotti had earmarked for the future the day he took the reins of the club.
In their first two seasons together, they finished fifth and fourth in the league respectively, but thanks to UEFA’s mandate, were overlooked for the Champions’ League in the 2013-14 season. Nobody questioned the natural talent this team possessed but the chemistry was just not there to be seen. The pace and guile of the wingers and the potential of the strikers flattered to deceive the audiences, the end result of which lacked silverware. The media even compared this Chelsea team to the juvenile Arsenal team from four years back, despite the presence of a few good men amongst the boys – Essien, Mikel and Lampard. Their consistency and the rock-solid defence ensured the Blues respectable positions in the league table. The only saving grace was the FA Cup, which they won after defeating Arsenal in the final. This was the first trophy in four years and brought joy to the supporters worldwide after a few turbulent years. The day Chelsea won their seventh FA Cup was even more special, as this was the day the legends retired. John Terry and Frank Lampard decided to hang their boots after seeing their team through a difficult period and ended their illustrious careers on a high.
The UCL embargo ended last august, with Chelsea repaying the majority of debt back to Abrahamovic. Carlo Ancelotti named Jon Obi Mikel as captain for his consistent performances over the years and the character he showed in proving his detractors wrong. This season the team has played like a well conducted orchestra. If it was the defence and midfield which had carried the Blues in previous seasons, it was their attack this time around which just tore defences to shreds. The kids had grown up. In Stoch, Kakuta, Borini, Sturridge and Higuain, Chelsea could boast of arguably the best attacking line-up in Europe. The crosses of Miroslav Stoch, the mesmerising skills and pace of Gael Kakuta, the predatory instincts of Fabio Borini and Daniel Sturridge, the goals of the only notable but the most brilliant signing Gonzalo Higuain, have shattered the morale of many teams.
As this piece is being written, this Chelsea team which was brought together not because of choice but because of destiny, finds itself at the top of the league table, in the semi-finals of the FA Cup and one win away from reaching the quarter-finals of the same tournament, where their entry was restricted for two years.
In hindsight, it is safe to say UEFA’s decision was the best thing that happened to this club after the treble, as it has given Chelsea its very own ‘golden generation’.
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