There is a lot to be said about how a run of victories (or defeats) can completely change the narrative about a team’s season, and even influence subsequent ones. Winning the Champions’s League in 2005 arguably slowed down the process of overhauling Liverpool’s team, which happened to be the worst to lift a European Cup in recent memory. Same can be said of AC Milan in 2007, as revenge against Liverpool deceived them into thinking that radical change wasn’t necessary, leading to a few seasons of mediocrity. On the reverse side, the Milan team that thrashed Manchester United 3-0 in the semi-final that year provided the lessons that would go on to be a cornerstone of the next four years for Alex Ferguson. It could be argued that those lessons have been forgotten, but that is another matter entirely. What is not in doubt is that a temporary run of victories can easily mask greater defiencies in a top side, buy them time with fans, and give the perception that maybe the difficult decisions that need to be taken can be postponed.
After the exit of Jose Mourinho from Inter Milan in 2010, what should have followed is a rapid dismantling of his treble winning side after the final whistle in the Coppa Italia against Roma. It didn’t. Now, Inter are faced with a slide into mediocrity so steep, it would need a mini miracle to avert it. Since reaching the final in 2008, Chelsea have undergone a slow, steady decline. Successive managers have been able to deliver a bump in results, mostly around the second half of the season but it has been nowhere near the brutal consistency of the Mourinho Machine. As results and performances became less consistent, we have witnessed a naked show of player power that rivals what used to obtain at Real Madrid. The core of Terry, Lampard, Drogba and Cole have somehow been able to convince Abramovich that they are not to blame for the poor results. They have stuck together, preserved their positions and avoided responsibility, while the team’s form gets worse. Scolari was seen off by the ‘cabal’, and Andre Villas-Boas has likewise been shown the door.
Having run out of excuses for poor performance, a mini revival has taken place that has seen them keep up their fight for 4th place, advance to the next round of the FA Cup, and more impressively, become the first English team to overturn a 2 goal deficit in the knockout phase of the Champions League era. Terry and co rolled back the years to give a dominant display of power in front of their home fans to defeat Napoli. Expectedly, that result has brought back optimism among the fans, and postponed what was sure to be a deluge of opinions on the decline of English clubs in Europe.
Before the final whistle, the image of Terry giving instructions after he was substituted in extra time was telling, and after the whistle the players mostly ignored caretaker coach Roberto Di Matteo.
One thing is clear: yesterday was one of the last great performances we will see from that group, and even if the form holds till the end of the season, drastic changes must be made. Ideally, the process should have started after the FA Cup win in 2010, but it didn’t. It becomes difficult to see how Chelsea can remain competitive throughout a season without difficult decisions regarding their most influential players who are now past their best.
It is worth remembering that soon after taking over at Barcelona, Pep Guardiola quickly did away with Deco and Ronaldinho. Samuel Eto’o was off the next season. Mourinho also dispensed with the dressing room clique he met at the Bernabeu. Progress will not be made at Stamford Bridge if the same thing doesn’t happen, irrespective of how the season ends.