LONDON – Maybe it was Roman Abramovich’s instruction to the players to improve.
One glance at the Chelsea owner’s Wikipedia page would no doubt encourage anyone to shift up a gear when told.
Perhaps it was the dismissal of Andre Villas-Boas, who paid the price for trying to move on the old guard. Or the increasingly successful interim appointment of former West Bromwich discard Roberto di Matteo, who has registered three consecutive wins.
Whatever inspired Chelsea to a storming 4-1 extra-time win over Napoli on Wednesday worked. Led by John Terry, as inspirational as he is controversial, with Didier Drogba turning back the years and Frank Lampard proving he is still the man for the big occasion, Chelsea was terrific.
Its pulsating performance left us wondering why things had stagnated so badly under AVB, though the attitude of the players must also be called the question. Once a team crosses the white line it should be motivated enough regardless of who the manager is, but this clearly didn’t apply with Chelsea.
Terry had denied player-power was behind AVB’s departure — as if he was going to say “yes, we got rid of him” — but Chelsea’s players displayed irresistible power against an enterprising Napoli team that was eventually blown away by the rampaging Blues on a night to remember.
This was a huge result and a brilliant display by a side where Terry is clearly more than a captain. It is difficult to recall a more influential player than Terry.
Whether that is a good thing many will doubt, but even the defender’s critics — effectively just about everyone who doesn’t support Chelsea — would have to admit that while his off-field behavior leaves much to be desired, he is Mr. Chelsea.
As Abramovich walked across the pitch after the match he indulged in high-fives before giving a more positive speech to the players.
“What he said stays in the dressing room,” said di Matteo earning maximum diplomacy points. “But I guess Roman was happy because we won.”
Realistically Chelsea will not win the Champions League, but it proved there is life in the old guard yet. But the best penny spent would be on the thoughts of AVB.
Having secured its place in the last eight of the Champions League, Chelsea turns its attention to the F.A. Cup sixth round, which offers some intriguing possibilities even though the absence of Manchester United, Manchester City and Arsenal may have taken some gloss off the quarterfinals for the power brokers of sponsorship and television.
It could be Tottenham vs. Chelsea or Everton vs. Liverpool in the final. The bad news is that the 2012 final may also see Leicester City play Bolton Wanderers, not a matchup Budweiser had in mind when it signed its lucrative deal to have its name on the tournament.
Leicester, the lone survivor from the Championship, has never won the F.A. Cup and is a dangerous underdog, but it is difficult to see it ending the interest of Chelsea, which will be oozing confidence after its midweek triumph. Verdict: Chelsea.
Everton manager David Moyes would love to celebrate 10 years in charge of the Toffees with his first major managerial honor, though whoever writes Martin O’Neill’s scripts would no doubt have ended the season with Sunderland winning the cup. Verdict: draw.
If Spurs reach Wembley, it would be a grand finale for Harry Redknapp should England call. Bolton may complete an ignominious cup/relegation double. Verdict: Spurs win.
Liverpool, underachieving in the league, is on course to win the domestic cup double but Stoke, beaten finalists a year ago, is in with a chance to make up for its disappointment in 2011. Verdict: Liverpool.
SIR DAVE RICHARDS, chairman of the Premier League, is known as the silent knight, happy to leave everyone else to speak to the media. Despite his £291,000 salary, the man who rose without a trace stayed in the shadows.
This week, it became easy to understand why Richards was English football’s Marcel Marceau, and rather than be critical of this, we should be grateful. Richards was in Doha for a Sports Security conference and decided to give Qatar some advice ahead of the 2022 World Cup.
One can only assume no Premier League spin doctor was around because Richards showed the subtlety of a charging rhino. Oh, and he also fell into a pool.
Richards said: “In our country and in Germany we have a culture. We call it ‘we would like to go for a pint and that pint is a pint of beer.’ “
At this point the assembled gathering must have been thinking it was a Sir Dave Richards lookalike, but the real thing continued: “It is our culture as much as your culture [in Qatar] is not drinking. There has to be a happy medium.”
And then this gem. “If you don’t do something about it, you are burying your head in the sand.”
Qatar . . . sand . . . desert. No he wasn’t joking and to complete displaying the PR skills honed at the George W. Bush academy, he ended his rant with: “You might be better off saying don’t come.”
Next in his sights was FIFA and UEFA which he accused of “stealing football,” blissfully unaware that the Premier League stole 22 clubs from the Football League 20 years ago.
Ladies and gentlemen, let’s hear it for Sir Dave Richards.
While urging another country to relax its attitude toward alcohol, Richards himself was not dry for long. Having put his foot in it as he spoke, while walking to the official dinner he inadvertently tumbled into a small water channel by a fountain — “only knee deep” claimed an eye witness with a tinge of regret.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.