Chelsea fans have endured a roller coaster of emotions in the past couple of years. It all began when a young, charismatic manager took the reins at Stamford Bridge in 2011. Andre Villas-Boas was dubbed "The Next Special One" and was supposed to be the next great manager to take the soccer world by storm. He had just won the treble with Porto leading them to an undefeated season en route to the Primeira Liga title, as well as capturing the Taca de Portugal cup and rounding out the trophy cabinet for the year with a UEFA Europa League triumph. His Europa League title made Villas-Boas the youngest manager ever to win a European title. AVB spent many years as an assistant to Jose Mourinho, starting at Porto where Mourinho led them to Champions League glory. Wherever Mourinho went, Villas-Boas followed. When Jose was appointed as Chelsea manager, AVB went with him to be his assistant. When his time was up at Chelsea and Inter Milan came calling, AVB went along with him. It is this connection that made people compare the two, along with the fact both had success at a young age and both were charismatic. Perhaps it was the pressure of living up to these expectations or perhaps it was simply his arrogance or a combination of both that got the better of AVB and led to his eventual demise.
Villas-Boas entered Stamford Bridge and immediately tried to turn the club upside down. It was his way or the highway. He implemented a high line defensively and began to make drastic changes to the squad by benching the "old guard". Instead of phasing out the players he deemed not suited for his style of play, or simply too old, he wasted no time and tried to implement his tactics and favored players immediately. It was evident his arrogance was blocking any sort of common sense. AVB was quickly alienating himself to the fan base as well as the club hierarchy. It would be one thing if he made these changes and the club actually performed well and were winning matches, but that was not the case. His high defensive line was obviously not working as defeats to the tune of 5-3 against Arsenal and 3-1 to Manchester United made that crystal clear. Chelsea were falling down the table and it was evident AVB had lost the plot. Fans were disgruntled, players were frustrated, and above all, ownership was definitely not happy. AVB’s arrogance shined bright when he decided to bench Frank Lampard, Michael Essien and Ashley Cole for the Champions League match against Napoli. Chelsea went on to lose the match 3-1 in the first leg, putting them in real danger of disqualification. A month later, Chelsea lost 1-0 to West Bromwich Albion in league play putting them three points behind Arsenal for 4th place. Chelsea were in real danger of missing out on the Champions League next year, not to mention having to overcome a 3-1 scoreline to Napoli just to continue their current run in the Champions League. After the West Brom defeat, Roman Abramovich had seen enough and he decided to sack the enigmatic manager.
Assistant manager and fan favorite, Roberto Di Matteo was appointed interim manager upon AVB’s firing. Di Matteo was a club legend, spending six years with Chelsea as a midfielder. He helped the club win two FA Cup titles, a League Cup, Community Shield, UEFA Super Cup and UEFA Cup Winner’s Cup during his time there as player. Di Matteo’s appointment as interim manager saved Chelsea’s season as well as their future. Chelsea began a resurgence under their new manager and started to get back to their winning ways. Then came the Napoli fixture in the Champions League. Andre Villas-Boas did Chelsea and Di Matteo no favors by losing the first leg 3-1. The second leg required somewhat of a miracle in order for Chelsea to proceed to the next round. Unlike his predecessor, Di Matteo started Ashley Cole, Michael Essien and Frank Lampard in this match and it paid off. Chelsea started the match knowing full well it was going to take at least two goals to stay alive. Napoli began the match dangerously and had a couple of great chances to extend their lead. Marek Hamsik’s effort on goal was saved by Petr Cech, and Edison Cavani’s sliding effort missed the target. Then the start of something beautiful happened. Ramires delivered a fantastic cross for Didier Drogba and his diving header found the back of the net to pull Chelsea back into the match. Chelsea had a new found confidence and they continued to threaten in the first half but their efforts did not yield a second goal. Minutes into the second half, Lampard’s corner kick saw John Terry fly and head the ball past De Sanctis and Chelsea were officially back in it. As it stood, they would qualify to the next round based on the 3-3 aggregate score with Chelsea ahead on away goals. The irony of it all, the "old guard" that AVB was so adamant to toss to the side, were the ones igniting this comeback. However, the drama wasn’t over. Gokhan Inler grabbed a goal back for his team and now Chelsea had it all to do once again. The Blues needed another goal just to take the match to extra time. Two goals were needed, without conceding again, in order for Chelsea to advance to the quarter-finals.
Chelsea were gifted a way back into the match in the 75th minute when Branislav Ivanovic’s header in the box met a Napoli defenders hand for a clear penalty. Frank Lampard stepped up to the spot and fired Chelsea level. As it stood, Chelsea still needed another goal to advance but the match would go to extra time if nothing was decided after 90 minutes. Despite the efforts of both teams to find a goal, extra time was needed to settle matters. In the 105th minute, Ramires was holding the ball on the far wing and his pass to Didier Drogba at the edge of the box split two defenders, Drogba quickly turned and delivered a low, hard cross into the box that fell to Branislav Ivanovic who thumped it into the back of the net sending fans and players alike into a state of euphoria across Stamford Bridge. It was a magical moment for any Chelsea fan, heck, any true soccer fan, to witness. Chelsea completed the improbable comeback and were one step closer to Champions League glory. Di Matteo had inspired the team and from that point on, Chelsea seemed to be a team of destiny.
Di Matteo strategically placed the Champions League and the FA Cup as priorities after realizing the Premier League was out of reach. He deliberately fielded weaker teams in the Premier League in order to have his best players available and rested for Champions League and FA Cup matches. This strategy ultimately paid the highest of dividends for the lovable Italian maestro. This is also considered proper rotation, considering the circumstances. Rotation is an art, not everyone is good at art, it takes special skill. Roberto Di Matteo mastered this skill during his interim tenure.
Chelsea faced Tottenham in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley and cruised past them 5-1 to book their spot in the final. Benfica stood in their way in the quarter-finals of the Champions League but Chelsea managed to get past them and set up a date with Barcelona in the semi-finals. So far, Di Matteo’s rotation was working out for him. If he could deliver an FA Cup trophy and guide his team past one of the best teams in the world in Barcelona, he would be on the verge of something Chelsea have never had the pleasure of feeling – Champions League glory.
Chelsea took the first leg at Stamford Bridge over Barcelona 1-0, however, they needed to sustain that lead at the feared Camp Nou in the second leg. It was one of the most exciting matches in Champions League history and destiny seemed to have turned her back on the Blues early on. Sergio Busquets put the home side ahead in the 35th minute and subsequently tied up the semi-final on aggregate. Minutes later, Captain, Leader, Legend, John Terry inexplicably fouled Alexis Sanchez from behind and earned himself a red card. Playing with a full squad against Barcelona is hard enough. Chelsea now had to do it with 10 men with a spot in the Champions League final on the line. Andres Iniesta made Chelsea’s conquest even harder with a goal in the 43rd minute. All of a sudden, Chelsea found themselves down 2-0 and 2-1 on aggregate and with only 10 men. To say Chelsea needed a miracle, might be an understatement. Just before the first half ended, Ramires provided his club with a glimmer of hope and pulled a goal back for them by elegantly chipping the ball over Victor Valdes.
Lionel Messi was handed the opportunity to perhaps to put the game to bed and send Chelsea crashing out of the Champions League with a 49th minute penalty shot. Up until now, Lionel Messi had never scored against Chelsea. A goal here would have likely sent his team to the finals of Europe’s most coveted competition. Destiny decided to wake up from her nap and Messi’s attempt rattled the woodwork. Messi had a couple more chances to put his team ahead but hit the woodwork once more and forced Petr Cech into a magnificent save. Chelsea had to defend for their lives and Petr Cech needed to be on high alert, as things stood, Chelsea would advance on aggregate. Barcelona were desperate to break down Chelsea’s wall but the 10 man blue army stood tall and firm. In stoppage time, Fernando Torres was free on a breakaway and rounded the keeper to book Chelsea’s ticket to the Champions League final with a goal to tie the match 2-2 and give Chelsea a 3-2 aggregate victory. Roberto Di Matteo had accomplished the unthinkable. When Andre Villas-Boas was let go, no one thought Chelsea would be able to regroup and overcome a 3-1 deficit to Napoli and then proceed to go all the way to the finals. It was truly a run for the ages, but Di Matteo and Chelsea were not done yet.
The month of May would prove to be a historic month in Chelsea’s season. It began on May 5th where they faced Liverpool at Wembley for the FA Cup final. Ramires and Drogba put Chelsea ahead 2-0 in the first half and on their way to their fourth FA Cup title in six years. Andy Carroll pulled one back for Liverpool in the second half but Chelsea managed to hold on for a 2-1 victory and their first trophy of the season. A few weeks later on May 19th 2012 – a date that will be forever engrained in every Chelsea fans memory – Di Matteo’s blue army traveled to Germany to face Bayern Munich in their own stadium for the chance at the trophy that has alluded Chelsea. Bayern Munich had one of the most formidable attacks in the world so it was evident that Chelsea would have to spend the majority of the match trying to defend for their lives and try to hit them on the counter attack. Defend for their lives is exactly what they did, to the point of criticism that they were not playing "real football", they "parked the bus" and played to survive. The fact of the matter is, Di Matteo was doing exactly what he had to do with the resources he had available. There was no way Chelsea would be able to match Bayern on the attack, they were not equipped to do so.
John Terry was forced to miss the match due to the red card he picked up against Barcelona in the second leg of the semi-final. Di Matteo decided to go ultra-defensive by handing young Ryan Bertrand, a left back by trade, his first start in European competition on the left hand side of the attacking midfield band. He did this with the hopes that Bertrand would shut that flank down and help defend Bayern’s attack. The young man put in the shift of his life as did John Obi Mikel in his holding midfield role. Mikel broke up play and retained possession and had his best game ever in the most important match of his life. However, all the frantic defending that Chelsea had to do all came apart in the 83rd minute when Thomas Muller put Bayern ahead and on their way to Champions League glory. Club legend, Didier Drogba, would not accept defeat and he rose high in the 88th minute and connected with a corner kick to head home the equalizing goal and send the match to extra time.
Chelsea continued their stellar defending in the two extra time periods and were able to fight and claw their way into a penalty shootout. Just four years ago, Chelsea were in this very position against Manchester United in the Champions League final and the infamous John Terry slip denied them the chance at glory. This time around, it would be different. Destiny was pushing Chelsea forward and Roberto Di Matteo was the angel sent down to guide them to the holy grail. It was only fitting that Didier Drogba stepped up to the spot with the chance to deliver the most prestigious silverware to his beloved club. A parting gift for himself, the fans, and the club that he has served ever so honorably. Deliver he did. It was complete. Di Matteo’s strategy was dignified. He turned around the clubs season and despite not finishing in the top four in the Premier League, he qualified for next season’s Champions League by winning the whole damn thing.
It was their city and their stadium, but it was Chelsea’s cup. Say what you will about the style of play they used to get there, the point is they got there and they earned the right to call themselves Champions of Europe by defeating anyone that stood in their way. No matter the odds, Chelsea defied them all.
Di Matteo was given the opportunity to stay on board and manage Chelsea the following season. Unfortunately, the fan favorite, the former #16 who wore blue, was let go in November after Chelsea’s form began to dip and became the first defending champion to fail to advance past the group stages of the Champions League. It was a sad day for Chelsea fans to see the man that guided their club to Champions League triumph let go so soon. In the 16th minute of each match from that point forward that season, the Chelsea faithful would serenade the stadium with chants of "THERE’S ONLY ONE DI MATTEO". Without a doubt, Destiny’s Angel – Roberto Di Matteo – will always have a special place in the hearts of Chelsea fans worldwide.
It was always going to be difficult to bring in an interim manager who would receive the same respect and love as Di Matteo received. However, to go with a man who was such a fierce rival and one who spoke ill of the team, the fanbase, and their star players, is simply unforgivable. Rafael Benitez was appointed by Roman Abramovich to be the interim manager and attempt to salvage Chelsea’s season. It was a mind boggling decision and one that did not sit well with Chelsea fans.
In soccer, there is rotation then there is rafatation. If you are a fan of a certain club, you need to pray to whoever you pray to that your club never has to endure rafatation. If you are a fan of a club that has experienced Rafa Benitez as manager and know all too well about rafatation – I feel your pain. Benitez is not a very likable figure. He didn’t really do much to try and get the fans on his side. Banners, signs and chants of "RAFA OUT" were flooding Stamford Bridge. He was not welcome here and the fans made sure he knew it. Rafa decided to phase out John Terry from the squad seemingly thinking he was on his last legs and would not be able to contribute to the team at a high level. Benitez’ reign as Chelsea manager was certainly a nervy one from a fans perspective. His constant rotation meant it was impossible for the team to build any sort of chemistry. Defeats to the likes of Queens Park Rangers and the inability to sustain a lead against teams like Newcastle and West Ham were worrisome. However, his task was clear – just finish in the top four. As long as he did enough to recover from those awful defeats to inferior opposition and guide the club to a top four finish, his job was complete and Chelsea could waive goodbye to the "Fat Spanish Waiter".
Rafa was able to right the ship eventually and even did enough to guide the club to the UEFA Europa League finals to face Benfica. Granted, Chelsea kind of stumbled their way to the final, but they got there nonetheless. They now had the chance to become the first team ever to win the Champions League and Europa League in back-to-back seasons. After a scoreless first half, Chelsea came out much better in the second half and took the lead in the 60th minute through Fernando Torres. A hand ball from Azpilicueta in the 68th minute gifted Benfica a penalty and Oscar Cardozo tied the game. As extra time loomed, Bransilav Ivanovic towered over Benfica’s defenders and his header – shades of Didier Drogba’s header in last years Champions League final – found the back of the net. Chelsea were champions once again, under yet another interim manager.
After the season was over, Chelsea needed a new manager, one that would bring excitement back to the Bridge. In the hearts of most Chelsea fans, there was only one man for the job. The man that had previously brought stability and unbridled success. The man referred to as "The Special One". Once the announcement was made that Real Madrid and Jose Mourinho would be parting ways, his arrival at Stamford Bridge was a foregone conclusion. It was just a matter of making it official.
Now that Chelsea have The Special One back at the helm, they finally look like they can compete on all fronts. However, if Jose Mourinho is not careful, he will risk playing his preferred players into the ground by not giving them enough rest. It took some time but Mourinho has settled on his favored starting XI. While it is great that he has settled on his starting line up, it is still imperative to implement some rotation. Thus far, Mourinho has failed in this regard. He cannot continue to start the exact same guys on just three days rest. Although he has acknowledged the fact that he might have made a mistake by starting the same players on three days rest, he continues to do it. The troubling aspect of this, is that Mourinho has now acknowledged this mistake roughly three times this season and has yet to learn from it. Most recently, the 1-1 result at The Hawthorns to West Brom. There was no reason for Jose to trot out all of Hazard, Willian and Oscar just three days after thumping Newcastle. Why purchase Andre Schurrle if you’re not going to utilize him? Schurrle is completely rested and would have provided a different element to the game that could have changed the result. For everything that Jose Mourinho is good at, it looks like the art of rotation is evading him.
Jose Mourinho is a mastermind, there is no question about that. All you have to do is look at the success he has had with all of the teams he has managed. Mourinho is one of the only managers that has taken three different teams to the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League. He has won the Champions League with two different teams, Porto and Inter Milan, something no other manager in history has done. However, his lack of rotation is something that needs work on. If he wants the chance to win the Champions League again and add to his legacy as perhaps the best manager of all time, he must learn to master the art of rotation.