Wednesday, 10 April 2013

After All These Years: A Return to the Luzhniki Stadium

May 21st, 2008. Chelsea, reeling after the dismissal of Jose Mourinho earlier in the season, yet still a dominant force in English and European football, face the evil empire  Manchester United in the final of the Champions League - reaching the Holy Grail of European football.  A Didier Drogba red card, a missed penalty by John Terry and Edwin van der Sar's powers of perceptions ensured that the red Mancs walked away the victors, leaving fans worldwide (including a fourteen-year-old Canadian) heartbroken. Fast forward 5 years, and Chelsea return to that same stadium, this time to face Rubin Kazan in the Champions League's less attractive sibling Europa.  But what of the players who took part in that dreaded final?

Eight players who took part in that infamous game remain at the club - John Terry, Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole, Petr Cech, John Obi Mikel, Michael Essien, Florent Malouda and the eternal Paolo Ferreira. From the pinnacle of European football, each has undergone a journey - some better than others.

Frank Lampard comes into this match staring the cold breath of mortality in the face.  Scorer of the equalizer in Moscow (also netting in the shootout), the Chelsea legend has declined in recent years, despite once again being our leading goalscorer last year.  Nearly 35, many clamor for a renewed contract for the midfielder, but the quiet consensus holds that Lampard, who was masterful in 2008 final and in the run to Munich, has reached the point in his career where he simply cannot perform consistently at the level required of him. Whether or not this will affect his play remains to be seen.

For John Terry, a return to the Luzhniki is a return to place where his penalty miss caused agony for Blues supporters. One could point to the miss as the defining moment in Terry's career - before the allegations of racism or adultery, before the illicit tours and other little things he has been criticized for - where Terry went from England captain and hero to, in some quarters, England's biggest joke.  He's also been robbed of Ricardo Carvalho - master of the dark art of defending - yet now has nurtured David Luiz to become Chelsea's most-needed defensive component, making him irrelevant in the mind of some.  All of this will weigh heavily on the mind of the captain.

The player who has undergone the least change is undoubtedly Petr Cech.  Lauded by some as the best goalkeeper in the world, Cech has not slowed down one bit, keeping Chelsea in games where they have no business succeeding (last year's run to the Champions League final is a perfect example).  A truly masterful performance in the 2008 final was undone by Cristiano Ronaldo's skill - but he would gain some revenge by stopping Ronaldo's penalty (although it was the only one he was able to keep out).  So far this season, Cech has been his reliable self, but, with Thibaut Courtois impressing on loan, and with occasional lapses, one must question just how long "Big Pete" will remain in a Chelsea jersey.

Perhaps the player who has undergone the most majestic transformation is John Obi Mikel. Ridiculed as a flop following his move from Chelsea (amongst the brouhaha of him "being stolen" from United), he stayed on the bench in 2008.  Nothing is more indicative of this change than his role in Munich and today - he is, without a doubt, one of Chelsea's most consistent midfielders. While he still has some lapses - versus Juventus at home in this season's Champions League, for example - Mikel is crucial to Chelsea's successes.

Ashley Cole will remain in the stands for Thursday's match, but a return to Russia sees him facing the same questions as Terry, Lampard and Cech.  With a surprisingly resurgent Ryan Bertrand doing well as a backup, Patrick van Aanholt doing well on loan and rumbles of summer purchases, Cole, who signed a one-year extension earlier this year, is facing irrelevancy.  Throughout, he has remained his consistent self, even scoring a goal in the process.  Nevertheless, one must wonder how long Ash has at Chelsea, but the fans support him nonetheless - seemingly more than the Arsenal fans ever did.

Of the last three - Essien, Malouda and Ferreira - the less that is said about them the better.  Injury (and a moronic loan to Real Madrid) has stolen Essien from us, while Malouda's refusal to accept lower wages has locked him in at Chelsea, forced to train with the youth teams.  Last but not least is Paolo Ferreira, seemingly ageless, yet not even trusted with a bench role in the 2008 final - the best indication of how his career at the top flight has been over for years. However, this is the last year of Ferreira's contract, so, with this likely being his farewell tour (and with a horrifying lack of depth out wide) we may see Paolo's smiling face in the line-up.

May 21st was a black day in our history, made greyer by May 19th, 2012. Nonetheless, as we strive towards a berth in the Europa League final, it is important to remember that football is a game of mountains and valleys - from the depths of despair to the heights of victory.  Thursday will see another chapter written in our club's history, and it is up to our players to ensure that it is a happy one.

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