First of all, through somewhat gritted teeth, I must say congratulations to Chelsea on securing a first Champions League title last weekend. It was a resounding endorsement of the theory that, in top level sport, mental attributes are of more importance than skill and ability. Few would argue that Chelsea are capable of playing the kind of dashing, skilful attacking football that all three other semi-finalists are renowned for, yet as, one after another, became mentally undone – culminating in Bayern’s monumental choke, in front of 75,000 of their own, expectant fans – Chelsea’s aging squad stubbornly refused to admit defeat, even having the arrogance and temerity to believe that they could topple Barcelona, and Bayern, and anyone else no doubt.
They may not be the most likeable collection of players ever assembled – and the sight of Roman Abramovich being feted as the hero of the hour might stick in the craw of some football supporters, emblematic as he is of the evolution of football away from being the game of the people into a ghastly, overhyped, overcommercialised monster. But Chelsea’s, can we call it, raging against the dying light?, caused some tense, compelling matches, and for keeping their heads when all their opponents were losing theirs, they deserve to savour their success.
A not entirely irrelevant footnote; after a season in which Chelsea were basically very poor for all but two months of it, they have now finished with two major trophies. Only Borussia Dortmund, runaway double winners in Germany, could fairly lay claim to doing better. Not even their own supporters would argue that Chelsea are the best team in Europe. They finished 6th in the Premiership, which seems about right: over the course of the season, it is hard to make the case that Chelsea have been better than any of the teams above them. Yet they are now champions of Europe. It all goes to show that, in tournament and knockout football, having a team working hard for each other (something often lacking under Andre Villas-Boas, but not under Roberto Di Matteo) and a clear tactical plan, can go a long way.
It is something that should give Irish supporters pause for thought as the nation prepares for Euro 2012. Chelsea were considered rank outsiders before the semi-finals, lucky even to have got that far. Similarly, Ireland have been priced at 7/1 just to get out of their group in Poland, on one betting site I saw. Given that we have Spain and Italy in our group, not to mention Croatia, it may not seem an overly generous price. But everyone knows Ireland will play as a team, do not ship goals easily and will generally be tough to beat. In the game of calm and nerve that is tournament football, as Chelsea have shown, this is often just about enough by itself. We may not have a Drogba – if ever the phrase ‘a complete striker’ was coined for one player, it was for him, and Chelsea will struggle to replace him – but defences at international level are generally much less formidable than the Champion’s League. Di Matteo may be a good manager, but he has a long way to go yet before he can be mentioned in the same breath as Trappattoni. With him in charge, you can be sure that Ireland’s preparation will be spot-on and our group rivals will struggle to spring any tactical surprises on us.
The point here is not to denigrate Chelsea (well, it is a little: they spent hundreds of millions and end up winning the biggest trophy in football with their worst team in 10 years) but to highlight how they have succeeded through the more mundane, basic and overlooked attributes in football: team work, effort and discipline (John Terry honourably excepted). And a little luck of course, but every team who ever won a trophy enjoyed some luck along the way. Ireland may have side lacking in flair, we don’t have a reliable finisher, we have Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews in midfield, but we do have a plan, we do have players who work hard for each other, and if you cast your mind back to the qualifiers away to Russia or at home to Armenia, we’re also good at being lucky too. So, as Chelsea have amply reminded us, we may be rank outsiders for Euro 2012, but don’t write us off just yet.
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