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International Break Blues

Will Chelsea’s momentum stop after the latest international hiatus?

The International Break is a necessary evil I suppose.  It’s fun sometimes, particularly during World Cup Qualifying.  Well, if your team wins that is.  I love supporting the USMNT (I always want to read that as U.S. Mutant Ninja Turtles), but it kills momentum for clubs.  It’s like tennis matches that get rain delayed overnight – it gives the guy who’s losing the match opportunity to regroup, rest, and heal if necessary.  Sometimes it totally changes the match.  And that’s what I’m afraid of because Chelsea has been on a roll, but now the international break – the IB if you will – has stopped the Blues in their tracks.

Compared to the past two seasons, this campaign is strange for Chelsea fans in that the team is sitting relatively pretty for a change, atop the league table, four points above the Manchesters.  So far we haven’t had to deal with the kind of angst that plagued us the past two seasons.  Yes, it’s hard to justify complaints when your team won the Champions League last season, but as anyone who followed that saga knows, it was the most stressful possible tournament in which Chelsea repeatedly cheated death, somehow escaping Munich with the big-eared trophy in their clutches.  By comparison this Premier League season has been downright docile.  So far at least.  That’s the main reason I’m concerned about this most recent momentum-killing IB.

I’ve really enjoyed watching Chelsea go undefeated this season – it’s been refreshingly un-stressful.  But now the team has to shake off their jet lag (Chelsea players are on a lot of national teams) and get their groove back in time to do battle at Tottenham this Saturday.  Add in the weirdness factor that they’ll be facing their old manager Andre Villas-Boas for the first time since Chelsea fired him last season and you have the makings of a potential perfect storm.  You can bet your booty AVB will have his Spurs revved up for maximum pride salvaging (meaning AVB’s pride).  It’s certainly not the cushy assignment a first place team would prefer to get to ease back into Premier League play after a tiring IB.  On the other hand, resuming the season with a dogfight like this may be the best way to get Chelsea back in the full swing of things.

Saturday’s game at Tottenham is a bigger match than initially meets the eye.  It is a crucial encounter that could mean the difference between establishing dominance in the league and giving the Manchesters a toehold.  The Manchesters do not need toeholds given to them.

Will Chelsea be able to regroup and shake off the cobwebs in time for the big clash with Tottenham Saturday?

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Di Matteo’s Upgrade

Roberto Di Matteo is finally Chelsea’s “permanent” manager

On Wednesday, Chelsea announced they are upgrading Roberto Di Matteo from “caretaker” manager to full-blown regular manager.  He has apparently signed a two-year contract, which is three months in Abramovich years.  Just kidding, Romovich.  Just a little sacking humor.

Actually, Di Matteo’s hiring shows some good common sense from the Chelsea brass.  Sure, he’s not on the big-time fancy manager short list (at least not yet anyway).  But why on earth wouldn’t you give an extension to the guy who was at the helm for an F.A. Cup title and the club’s first Champions League title – all in his first few months on the job?  It only seems fair that he would get the chance to manage Chelsea for a full season.  Chelsea has chosen wisely.

Di Matteo proved adept at getting Chelsea ready for big matches and guiding them in sticking with the game plan.  I wish I knew exactly what he did so differently from Andre Villas-Boas behind the scenes, but whatever it was it worked.  Di Matteo apparently has great rapport with the Blues squad.  It takes time to develop trust and quality relationships between coach and players, so why bust up something that works?

In the excellent (and recently revised/updated) book Soccernomics, the authors statistically show that, generally speaking, the amount players are paid has more bearing on a team’s success than who manages the team.  So if you have a manager the players trust, who is strategically competent, and a good ambassador for the club, you might as well stick with him.  Save the big bucks for your players rather than blowing it on a ritzy-name manager.

The challenge for Di Matteo next season will be incorporating new players and building for the future, while still satisfying the fans’ (and owner’s) hunger to win.  Another potential challenge will be maintaining the team’s drive after already winning the biggest club prize in world soccer.  But as anyone who followed Chelsea last season knows, despite winning the Champions League, there is plenty of room for improvement!

What do you think of Di Matteo’s appointment as Chelsea manager?

Champions League Final Thoughts

Chelsea finishes season as European Champions

I’m still shaking my head about Chelsea winning the Champions League.  It’s not that I didn’t believe they could do it, after all, once they made it past Barcelona anything was possible.  But Chelsea was so wildly inconsistent this season, it was impossible to predict how the team would fare on the hostile home turf of Bayern Munich.

The final was only slightly less of a nail-biter than the Barcelona semifinals.  I was nervous at the opening whistle when Chelsea’s lineup and configuration immediately indicated they were going to sit back and play defense.  I was hoping they’d take the fight to Bayern a little more, but that Roberto Di Matteo knows his way around the tactical board.  His plan worked!

Defensively, I was uncertain how Cahill and Luiz would hold up after missing so many weeks with hamstring injuries but they did very well.  Particularly pleasing was Luiz’s self-control – he didn’t make the kind of unwise challenges he’s been prone to before in big games.  And what about Ashley Cole?  Talk about an unsung hero for Chelsea this season!  That guy apparently wanted him some of that big-eared trophy badly because he patrolled the Chelsea box like a Doberman.

The pundits were unfair to Chelsea before, during, and after the final.  They seemed disappointed that the supposedly inferior team was hanging in so well against Bayern.  It couldn’t be that Chelsea was putting up a scrappy, unified team effort according to the pundits, Chelsea was just incredibly lucky.  Sure, Bayern had almost all the scoring chances, but they didn’t take advantage of them.  Pundits have been driven crazy by this Chelsea team that was so poor in the Premier League and yet won the biggest club prize in the world.  The attitude seems to be that Chelsea didn’t deserve to win because of their domestic play, so they stole the title by way of dumb luck.  Here’s the deal pundits:  Chelsea’s victory demonstrates what makes knock-out competitions so fun for fans – that you can have a struggling team that may not be as strong on paper, but manages to pull themselves together when the games really matter and end up winning it all.  It may irk the experts to hear it, but Chelsea is the best team in Europe because they won the tournament.

I was certain Chelsea was defeated when Bayern scored with less than ten minutes to play.  Drogba’s header goal just a few minutes later was so shocking in its suddenness and skillfulness that I laughed out loud.  Then I thought the nail in the coffin for Chelsea was the penalty kick awarded after Drogba felled Ribery in the box.  But no, Petr Cech snuffed out Robben’s shot.  Amazing.

I next thought Chelsea were goners in the shootout – first when they lost the toss and had to shoot second, then especially when Mata’s first shot was blocked by the Hulk, I mean Neuer.  Bayern was already up by two when Luiz stepped up as Chelsea’s second shooter.  He backed up for the longest running start in the history of shootouts (I can’t actually verify that as fact) which I was sure would put the ball somewhere in the Bavarian countryside.  Instead he practically blasted a hole in the back of the old onion bag.

Lampard, the most reliable PK taker on earth (I can’t verify that either) stepped up next and scored to make it Chelsea 2 – Bayern 3.  Hope was still alive.  Time for some Cech heroics next, as Petr batted away Olic’s shot.  Now things were interesting.  Ashley Cole tied things up in what looked like relaxed fashion.  Schweinsteiger’s stuttered approach to his shot seemed uncertain and the result proved it as the ball dinged off the post.  Now it was all up to Chelsea’s final kicker:  Drogba.  He set the ball down, adjusted his socks, and tucked the ball into the left corner of the goal, making Chelsea European Champions for the first time.

Chelsea tried the patience of even the most fervent Blues fans this season.  Chelsea’s roller coaster season demonstrates why people follow teams and watch sports, because every once in a while you get to be part (even if it’s a tiny part and from a distance) of something inspiring and great.

Plus, it sure is fun.

Any thoughts on Chelsea’s championship season?  Feel free to share below…