HERE is the news, apparently: Chelsea are still a European power and English football is not dead after all, even if Sir Dave Richards, the Premier League mandarin, did his best to finish it off with his tumble into a swimming pool and a monologue about foreigners "stealing" the game from us.
Roman Abramovich strode across the pitch on Wednesday night high-fiving like a man vindicated. If only it were so simple. Chelsea’s owner was certainly the beneficiary of his team’s rousing comeback against Napoli, but he was also its victim, because the transformation he authorised by hiring Andre Villas-Boas was stopped by a counter-coup.
Identified, in the wake of AVB’s sacking, as the source of the malaise, the old guard paraded themselves as Chelsea’s saviours. You had to admire the chutzpah of John Terry, who sounded every inch the manager at Tuesday’s press conference while attempting to assure his audience that he is not, in fact, the manager.
Terry was sufficiently shrewd to recognise that Wednesday’s second leg against Napoli offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get Abramovich off the team’s back, and show where Chelsea’s real spirit lay. ''Robbie”, aka Roberto Di Matteo, the temporary manager, was made to sound more like an old pal from the Ken Bates era rather than Abramovich’s appointee.
Di Matteo’s elevation was a bonanza for Terry and Frank Lampard, whose treatment by Villas-Boas had been clumsy and self-defeating. To all outside eyes Lampard seemed to have been selected for ritual sacrifice, regardless of his value to the team. 'Super Frankie Lampard’, as the crowd know him, would be sent into internal exile to get the new manager’s reformist message across.
Abramovich lost his nerve before Villas-Boas could win the battle he was hired to start. The confusion at the heart of this oligarchical whim was that Chelsea could have evolved towards youth and entertainment without alienating the players who inspired the victory over Napoli. With clever management they might have joined the ride. And besides, Villas-Boas lacked the necessary calibre of replacement to thrive on a big night without Lampard or Michael Essien, as we saw in the 3-1 first-leg defeat in Naples.
Simply: the players promoted by Villas-Boas were not of the match-winning quality displayed by the old Rat Pack. Terry and Co knew this, and when Napoli rolled into Stamford Bridge they grabbed the chance to put all the furniture back just the way they like it.
Terry, who had taken questions on Villas-Boas, players’ contracts, Fabio Capello and “Roman and the board” on Tuesday, was naturally exultant as Chelsea advanced to Europe’s quarter-finals. The fans, who thought their season was over, surrendered to the rhapsody of an old-school Chelsea defiance-exhibition.
Again Terry supplied the script: “This is one of the very best nights for us and we showed what Chelsea are made of,” he said. “We were solid, resilient and fought until the very end. We’ve proved we’re a team. That’s what we’re about: desire, togetherness, sticking together when it really mattered. English football is still going strong.”
That last claim was another fine example of Terry’s taste for politics. Did any victorious Chelsea player really care about “English football?” They were not flag-bearers for their league or nation. The aim was to win the battle with Abramovich and stop the clear-out before it could really start. Within minutes of the final whistle Didier Drogba was saying he wanted to stay at Stamford Bridge for as long as they would have him.
The TV images of Drogba clutching his face while keeping one eye open to monitor events around him was sweetly symbolic of the old guard’s cunning.
These boys always keep an eye out. The stalwarts were not blocks to progress after all. They were the ones who knew how to prevail in a tight Champions League tie and Terry was determined to let everyone know it.
So the problem returns in different form. Does Abramovich stick with the Houdini routine or twist again in the summer with the purge Villas-Boas was denied time to enact? Terry, Lampard and Drogba are undoubtedly stronger than they were when Abramovich lambasted the squad after Villas-Boas’s departure but they will need more days and nights like this to retain their hold on power.
Even Chelsea fans who are uneasy about player-power will settle for the old comfort of knowing this team means business again. But the manner of the revival must worry them. Terry and Co wait for Abramovich’s brainstorms to blow themselves out and then clear up the mess.
The core of Chelsea legends was too strong to be broken by a rookie coach who was the same age as Lampard. Maybe to smash it was to jeopardise the only identity Chelsea have. A new one will not come reliably from the mind of Abramovich.