Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The decade's greatest footballing moments (5) - Abramovich plus Mourinho equals a new age

Right then, who in the UK had ever heard of Roman Abramovich before he bought Chelsea in June 2003? Probably about as many folk as there are Russians who had heard of Ken Bates, the man who he bought the London club from. Yet the Russian Oligarch, he of the bajillion dollar fortune (one bajillion is the same as a thousand gazillions, honest) has left a lasting imprint on English football, and ultimately on club football as a whole, with his financial outlay on the club. And, of course, with his decision to appoint a Portuguese manager who was the ultimate rent-a-quote - calling himself "the special one" sounded like the most arrogant thing ever, until Jose Mourinho went on to prove that he could live up to that claim. Chelsea broke the Man Utd-Arsenal hegemony at the top of the Premier League, and the extra entertainment brought to these shores has helped contribute to the emergence of the English Premier League as, by some distance, the outstanding domestic league in the world at the end of the noughties.

Mourinho was to arrive at Stamford Bridge a year after Abramovich; instead the zillionaire chose to give Claudio Ranieri, the incumbent coach, the chance to prove himself. To be fair on the Tinkerman, as he was known for his fondness for squad rotation, he did take Chelsea to second in the league (behind Arsenal), an improvement on fourth the previous campaign, and, having knocked the Gunners out of the Champions League, they really should have been in the final against Mourinho's Porto, only to completely bugger up the semi against Monaco; at 1-1 in the first leg away from home, Monaco had a player sent off, and Ranieri uncharacteristically gambled by throwing on another forward, only to watch in horror as the French side nicked two late goals. In the second leg, Chelsea led 2-0 (and so on away goals) only to end up drawing 2-2.

Monaco went on to be humped in the final, and Ranieri was done for, having failed to deliver either of the big prizes despite enough funding to bring in Glen Johnson, Geremi, Wayne Bridge, Damien Duff, Joe Cole, Juan Sebastian Veron, Adrian Mutu, Alexey Smertin, Hernan Crespo, Claude Makelele and Scott Parker - a cool 122.3 million pounds. No, really. Though I suppose that it would only buy two Kakas, or one and a half Cristiano Ronaldos. And Mr. Special One, fresh from winning the Champions League (a season after beating Celtic in the UEFA Cup final), was the man to replace him. Of course, he was given a blank cheque book as well, though he spent "only" 91 million, which included such Chelsea luminaries as Petr Cech, Didier Drogba and Ricardo Carvalho, along with useful players such as Paulo Ferreira and Arjen Robben, and, er, less useful players such as Tiago and Mateja Kezman. But, with both Arsenal and Man Utd going through a transitional period, they were the favourites for the title and duly delivered.

Much has been made of the season that Arsenal's "invincibles" won the title without losing a match; yet 2004-05, the following season, saw Chelsea lose only one match, in October at Manchester City, as they won the title by a country mile, scoring three more points than Arsene Wenger's side had done before. Mourinho's side were certainly solid at the back, with Cech, Carvalho, Makelele and John Terry, but a front three of Duff, Robben and Drogba effectively established the 4-5-1/4-3-3 formation as a tactic which went on to be frequently copied by most other teams in the country. The only let down was another European failure; after a sensational win over Barcelona, they were knocked out by Luis Garcia's so-called "ghost goal" for Liverpool, who went on to the final at Istanbul. More of that later...

Chelsea lost a whole five matches in the league the following year...not that it stopped them winning the title again. But this time Barca got revenge and knocked them out of the Champions League in the first knockout round. The cracks were beginning to appear in the manager-owner relationship, and in 2006-07, Mourinho's side were pipped by a revitalized Manchester United in the league, though they did win the FA Cup and the League Cup. But The Special One just wasn't special enough to win the biggest trophy of them all - Liverpool won another European semi, this time on penalties. There was a strange inevitability about Mourinho's departure in September 2007.

A fat lot of good it's done Abramovich. Avram Grant couldn't win the league or the Champions League, whilst Luis Felipe Scolari was a disaster. But Chelsea remain a major force in English and European football even as the Russian has reined in his spending. Even though the rest have caught up with Chelsea, they changed the football landscape beyond recognition.


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