Dice rolls for Chelsea at era's end

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It all made sense when Didier Drogba stroked home the penalty that won the European Cup for Chelsea.

The narrative that began with the writing of a Russian cheque to see off Ken Bates eight seasons ago culminated £1 billion pounds later in an orgy of Champions League redress. It had been etched in the tea leaves, revealed in the flutter of a magpie’s wings. It was meant to be.

The failings that downsized Chelsea to sixth in the Premier League, forcing the eviction of the seventh manager of Roman Abramovich’s tenure, were given the winner’s makeover.

Shortcomings were not seen as signs of frailty but just another hurdle to negotiate. Thus Chelsea were heroic, courageous, spirited etc. They had balls if not the ball in scrambling past Barcelona and then Bayern Munich to win that fabled trophy.

More than that, the substantial good fortune Chelsea enjoyed in both matches was seen as justified, footballing karma righting the balance skewed on the day four years ago when the bounce of the ball in Moscow went with Manchester United and 12 months later when the referee favoured Barcelona at Stamford Bridge and Andres Iniesta settled their semi-final with the last kick.

Except luck is never distributed evenly or fairly. It follows its own random route map no matter how much the fatalists portray events as divinely rigged. Without the prism of victory warping interpretations, Chelsea’s displays against Barcelona and Bayern Munich would have been written quite differently.

It would be mean-spirited to argue that Chelsea’s win on Saturday devalued the Champions League. Rather what it did do was uphold the virtues of cup competition, which allow the underdog to have its day in a way the league programme does not.

And so Chelsea find themselves in the grip of a paradox, champions of Europe but domestic sixth-raters with an ageing team at the fag end of its cycle and a caretaker manager considered not good enough by West Bromwich Albion.

If it were otherwise there would be no debate about the suitability of Roberto di Matteo to continue in his post next season, no choral appeals from team-mates to China-bound Drogba to reconsider, no anguished cries about his role at the club from £50 million misfit Fernando Torres. And no head scratching about how to close the gap to Manchester City with a squad held together by too many players the wrong side of 30.

One of those, Frank Lampard, insisted in the euphoria of Saturday night, that this was not the end of the story but a foundation for sustained rewards. Footballers are wired to think this way.

Kenny Dalglish attempted to persuade the American auditors that the Carling Cup was evidence of progress at Liverpool. Plausible, perhaps, but when set against the punishing statistics accumulated during a season of Premier League toil, a more representative picture emerges.

Chelsea eventually stapled their mits to a pot that in the Jose Mourinho years was worthy of them. Saturday’s epiphany should not be seen as evidence of greatness. Drogba’s concussive header aside, Chelsea did not set neutral hearts racing with the quality of their play.

The best player in blue was a defender, Ashley Cole, who narrowly edged goalkeeper, Petr Cech, for the honour. Bayern Munich engineered 35 attempts on goal. Chelsea did not manage double figures.

These are the details that need addressing when Abramovich decides how to proceed. Honesty must be allowed a say when dawn breaks. He wants more days like this.

The sentiment of Lampard and the squad elders pointing towards the retention of Di Matteo should not offer them protection should the Italian remain in charge. Saturday was not the beginning of anything. It was a magnificent end for a team that has run its course.

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