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A Dramatic Transformation for Chelsea

Chelsea captured the FA Cup this past Saturday following a 2-1 win over Liverpool. It would have been difficult for anyone to predict such an outcome just 60 days ago. Indeed, the past two months have been quite topsy-turvy for Chelsea. Just when the London club appeared dead and ready to play out a meaningless season in the hopes of rebuilding over the summer, it now finds itself winner of the prestigious FA Cup and in the Champions League final for the chance to be crowned Europe’s best team. 

The changes at Chelsea literally occurred overnight when Portuguese coach Andre Villas-Boas was ousted following a string of poor results, which included a 3-1 loss to Napoli in the Champions League. His replacement, on an interim basis, is former Italian defender Roberto Di Matteo. He has turned Chelsea from pretender to sudden contender overnight. 

Di Matteo admitted last week that the past eight weeks have been a strain for his team both physically and mentally, saying, “We've tried with our schedule to give the players as much time to recover mentally from the games. That’s very important.”   

Over the past 26 days alone, Chelsea has played two London derbies, an FA Cup semifinal and final, a top-four contest against Arsenal and Newcastle, along with two intense Champions League matches versus Barcelona. It’s enough to make anyone's head spin – let alone a coach who just joined the fray. 

“But we are still thinking positively about trying to reach the fourth spot and be able to qualify for the Champions League next season,” he told reporters last Tuesday during a news conference, a day before Chelsea lost to Newcastle 2-0. In that game, Chelsea fell flat against a Newcastle side that was both determined and attack-minded. At this point, the only way for Chelsea to get into the Champions League next season – that’s what a top four finish would portend – is to win the final against Bayern Munich in two weeks.    

Di Matteo’s heart really wasn’t in the Newcastle game. After all, it had to play the FA Cup final three days later at Wembley Stadium and the chance to win silverware is what every team wants in a season. For a shot at the trophy, Di Matteo was willing to lose a Premiership game, even if it meant dropping to sixth place. 

Di Matteo has gotten the most out of his players when just a few weeks earlier Villas-Boras was struggling with them. Di Matteo transformed the internal bickering into team unity, urging the players in a closed-door meeting to make a pact to put their differences aside until the end of the season. The positive message has worked so far. Di Matteo has put renewed faith in captain John Terry, who will miss the Champions League final due to suspension, and midfielder Frank Lampard, whom Villas-Boras had stopped talking to directly at the time of his sacking.   

Although Chelsea does need reinforcements come next season, many have already called on owner Roman Abramovich to make Di Matteo the full-time manager to lead that charge. For now, Chelsea finds itself where clubs like Manchester United and Arsenal are not – in the Champions League final – under a manager who has been able to unite the dressing room and utilize tactics that play to the team's strengths. 

Of course, those tactics have been cause for some discussion, especially among those who love entertaining soccer. Entertaining, Chelsea is not. A better word would be efficient. While Villas-Boras was obsessed with emulating Barcelona’s flair and pace, Di Matteo is focused on defending and attaining results. No one can blame him. He inherited a terrible situation and his goal is to show, in a short time, that he can turn things around. So far, it has worked.  

Di Matteo favors a 4-1-4-1 formation with two wingers and a sole striker. The midfield is well covered and the five-man defense is meant to be airtight. More often than not, the formation turns into a 5-4-1 with a defense that hunkers down and Didier Drogba alone up top in search of a goal like he did against Liverpool this weekend. In its home-and-away series against Barcelona in the semifinals of the Champions League, Chelsea employed such a style and was able to overcome the best team on the planet. It wasn’t pretty, but it was the result that counted. Barcelona remains the better team, but Lionel Messi and his teammates will be watching the final on TV like the rest of us come May 19. So much for that Barcelona-Real Madrid final we’d all been hoping for. 

Of course, that does not bode well for fans who want to watch soccer and also be entertained. In the final against Bayern, Chelsea will likely put its defensive tactics on display. What it will mean for the fans is a low-scoring contest (likely a scoreless match after 120 minutes) where Chelsea tries to choke the life out of the game. It’s the only way for Chelsea to be able to compete with a team like Bayern. If the past two months are any indication, it may just work.  

Clemente Lisi writes a monthly soccer column for RealClearSports, appearing the first Monday of each month. 

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