In Woody Allen’s 2005 romance/thriller Match Point, the protagonist, an adulterating chancer, lives his life by the mantra “I’d rather be lucky than good.” This epithet reflects how the majority of football fans view how Chelsea shot to Champions League victory last year, especially in the games over Barcelona and Bayern Munich, where it was widely believed that Chelsea were the lesser side who played the uglier football. Yesterday’s match at Stamford Bridge, in which a last-second header from Victor Moses earned three points for Chelsea in a game where they were largely outplayed by the visitors, will only go to reinforce such beliefs by the naysayers.
That is not to say they are completely inaccurate. Chelsea have undoubtedly been blessed on occasions, and Roberto Di Matteo is our lucky mascot. Even discounting Chelsea’s exploits in the Champions League, there was the goal that really wasn’t against Spurs in the semi-final of the FA Cup, as well the linesman – correctly, but could have so easily gotten wrong – adjudging Andy Carroll’s second goal against Chelsea not to have crossed the line in the FA Cup final. The counter argument of this, is, of course, that Chelsea have also seen their share of bad fortune under Di Matteo – Torres’ dismissal against Manchester United two weeks ago still makes me clench my fists with ire, and thinking about Hernández’s offside winner in the same game makes me adopt a form not dissimilar to the Incredible Hulk. Chelsea have been denied about five stonewall penalties this season too, not that I’m counting, or anything.
But leaving aside the “lucky” argument for a second, it is important to dispel the notions of Di Matteo being nothing more than an opportune man who just randomly makes decisions that somehow work. There is a method behind each of his key decisions. Think back to the 1-0 victory over Barcelona at Stamford Bridge in April. Barcelona have a plethora of attacking talents, in Messi, Iniesta, Xavi and Fàbregas, but the manager focused on neutering Dani Alves, as he recognised the right-back as the key to a lot of the good that Barcelona do. To counteract this, he placed Ramires in front of Ashley Cole, and the two combined brilliantly to silence the Brazilian. As such, Barcelona left London frustrated. These are not the actions of a man who wins games by simply rubbing a four-leaf clever before every match.
Then there was the away leg at Camp Nou. Down to ten men, two goals down, Chelsea found resolve that most could only dream of to not only dispel any meaningful Barcelona attempts on goal, but to somehow score two sensational goals of their own. The formation Di Matteo adopted after Terry’s sending off, essentially a 6-3-0, may not have been quite as pretty as Barcelona’s tiki-taka, but the way Chelsea’s fatigued ten men weathered the Barca onslaught holds a kind of beauty in itself. Craig Brown said about Celtic gaffer Neil Lennon for their own unlikely Champions League victory over them yesterday, “Any manager who beats Barcelona in any context deserves the utmost praise and credit.” Roberto Di Matteo, and the Chelsea players who performed that night, deserve immense plaudits for the miracle they carried off then. They achieved that feat, with guts, determination and sheer force of will. This was definitely not just luck.
Sometimes though, it takes that precarious blend of both luck and good planning that really makes a game beautiful for football fans. Di Matteo’s decision to bench John Terry last night, who, for all his flaws, is still Chelsea’s most consistent centre-half was met with raised eyebrows, and threatened to backfire miserably, as David Luiz had a woeful game, and Ryan Bertrand wasn’t much better covering in left-back for the injured Ashley Cole.
Shakhtar Donetsk, and in particular frequent AVB-target Willian, danced a merry ring around Chelsea on occasions and were it not for their own errant finishing, could have easily walked away from Stamford Bridge with the win. But in the dying stages of the game, there was Moses, to meet Mata’s header in a manner most reminiscent of Drogba in the CL final, to head the ball into the net and for Chelsea to claim a victory that was nothing short of crucial. That Moses had been sent on as a sub for Oscar – who also got on the scoresheet – shows Di Matteo’s usage of subs has generally been to his favour.
As in Ukraine, Shakhtar Donetsk might have outplayed Chelsea at times, with Gary Cahill remarking after the game, "At times, there were four, five players up front," but the home side never quaked in their boots. They knew what was on the line here – a draw at the Bridge would have meant we would have had to win in Juventus, or face being the first European Champions to exit at the group stages – but the situation didn’t daunt them any. Stage fright is simply not a known concept to this plucky team. And that is worth accentuating, because football is not purely about the skills. Like a fabulous soup, it is a combination of ingredients, and heart and grit are just as important as individual displays of wizardry, or meticulous tactics on the chalkboard.
Chelsea have those two components – Oscar’s 40-yard screamer last night was 50 shades of delicious and Roberto Di Matteo has displayed tactical nous that really deserves more praise – but there will be sides with more talented players, more scrupulous managers. When that happens, one has to surpass the high standards set by oneself and really bring something special to the table. Chelsea has been a delight to watch recently, not just for the sizzling football, but, because, joyfully, my beloved team does not at all seem intent on merely resting on its laurels as Champions of Europe. They want to show that they are worthy of that claim.
Click here for more stories on Football and Sport
Click here to follow Sabotage Times on Twitter
Click here to follow Sabotage Times on Facebook