“We aren’t as good as we used to be,” said Frank Lampard moments before revealing he had categorical evidence that bears do in fact relieve themselves in the woods. To put some pesky context on the otherwise eye-catching words, Lamps (33) was referring specifically to the numerous points Chelsea have dropped on their own turf this season, but it’s easy to scale the assessment up and apply it to the team at large.
This version of Chelsea resume their bid for Champions League glory in a strange place. The sacking of Andre-Villas Boas has brought about a resurgence of sorts, but not even the most Peter Osgood-worshipping, John Terry-forgiving, dyed in the wool Chelsea fan would be too happy about the current level of performance being served up the team at present. They aren’t as good as they used to be, neither in terms of results or style. The identity of the man entrusted to bring about the improvement is far from certain. The return of the Special one has been mentioned, but then again so has Rafa Benitez, an appointment the Chelsea fans made clear would be about as popular as the unveiling of an Anders Frisk statue in the Shed End.
The most recent hideously longwinded draw from UEFA headquarters from somewhere deep inside a mountain in Switzerland was a complete tease for Chelsea fans. “CONGRATULATIONS! You’ve won an all expenses holiday! To Homs” is the mildly inappropriate non-football comparison to the Blues getting paired with Benfica in the quarter-final before more than likely getting trounced by Barcelona in the semis.
According the English view of the footballing world, only British teams, a couple of Spanish teams and – when they’re not too busy preening their facial hair – one or two Italian teams are capable of playing football, but Benfica have the potential to upset Chelsea. The ‘faux fear’ Didier Drogba was captured on camera displaying when the draw was made may not have been intended as an insult aimed at the Lisbon club, but it was open to be interpreted as disrespectful and Benfica coach, Jorge Jesus has done whatever the YouTube era equivalent of ‘pinning it on the dressing room wall’ is. “He might have been joking, we don’t know,” he said before pointing out “Portuguese clubs have eliminated both Manchester United and Manchester City so that should act as an indication of the strengths of Portuguese football. Any response to Didier Drogba we will give out on the field.”
Maybe recording a couple of draws with Manchester United isn’t as ringing the endorsement of quality it once had to be, but the fact Europe’s top clubs have reportedly been casting flirty glances in the direction of Benfica’s key players tells you they can’t be dismissed with a casual fake shudder. Nicolas Gaitan, Javi Garcia and Alex Witsel are among the most coveted weapons in Benfica’s box of tricks and the predatory Oscar Cardoza up front, any slip-ups in the Chelsea defence are likely to be punished. And this season has shown us that there will be slip-ups. The Portuguese league has been a two horse race for the last few seasons and on a couple of occasions that cliché overstates the number of horse by one. Lisbon’s Eagles have generally been one of those horses however and franked the form by making good progress in continental competition.
The Napoli tie did remind of us what Chelsea are capable of – at both ends of the spectrum. They were comical in Naples and clinical at the Bridge. The performance in the second leg was one of power and urgency harking back to the best moments of Chelsea’s recent history. If they can do something similar in the remaining games, maybe they’ll get closer to that European Cup than is expected.
Drawing a couple of bizarre parallels in history doesn’t hurt the excessive optimism either. Liverpool were performing like you’d expect for a team that counted Djimi Traore as an automatic selection in the league when they went on to win it. There was upheaval at Stamford Bridge when Avram Grant took over in 2007 after the Special One left the club, but they finished the season one sturdy John Terry standing leg away from winning the whole thing. The difference this time is with an awesome looking Barcelona and a slightly less awesome Real Madrid waiting in the wings, you’re going to need a huge slice of jamminess to make up for any weaknesses.
Chelsea clearly aren’t the best team in Europe, but the best team in Europe don’t always win the Champions League. Just ask Rafa Benitez – as long as that’s all you ask him.