Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Chelsea come of age in Europe

Despite their domestic dominance of the last two seasons and despite reaching two Champions League semi-finals, it's always felt to me that Chelsea have been outsiders in Europe. We stood in awe of teams like Milan, Real Madrid and Barcelona, watching and looking at their performances and history in Europe and always considering ourselves inferior in status and achievement. Our two semi-finals felt like a smaller club defying the odds to get to the final stages of the competition, despite the quality in the team.

But something changed over the two matches against Barcelona this season, in particular with our peformance at the Nou Camp. Despite a lot of negative publicity, as ever, I thought our performance and attitude over the 90 mins was superb. Twice Barcelona took the lead, twice with great goals. But twice Chelsea came back. They never gave in. They always believed. Not only that, but at times they played some superb football as well. They created nearly double the number of total shots and again nearly double the amount of shots on target. Barcelona scored two of their three shots on target. If we had scored that percentage we would have had at least 3 goals if not more.

Remember they were playing against the European Champions in their own back yard with 90,000 odd fans on their back, as well as the considerable skills of this Barcelona team. I don't rememeber the last time a team went to Barcelona and created more chances and more shots on goal than them, yet alone a team coming from behind twice to draw with them. Chelsea were not intimidated. Not one bit. They were not overcome by the occasion and never looked out of their depth. They didn't look like upstarts trying to crash the European party, as they have in previous years. No, last night they looked like they belonged. They looked at home. They played without fear, without looking or even feeling inferior to their rivals. They looked like a club and a team not that was inferior, but that was the equal of the European Champions. They were not out of place.

Chelsea looked like a world-class team and a big club last night. In their minds, they know now that they are a big team, a top-class team, a champion team which belongs in the exalted company of Madrid, Milan and Barcelona. The players beleived they were their equal and nothing was going to stop them getting their result. They were not intimidated by history or reputation, becuase they knew that in terms of qulaity they were at least Barcelona's equal.

Terry led by example again, Lampard put in a world-class performance capped off with one of the great European goals - no fluke, a great goal. Robben looked more and more dangerous as the match went on. Makelele broke up the play brilliantly. Ashley Cole was rasping down the left linking up superbly with Frank Lampard, getting forward and looking to get crosses in at every opportunity. They played with nerves of steel. The face of John Terry when he celebrated that equaliser will live forever in the memory. He will not rest until this club has won this trophy. He beleives we are good enough, he will not be intimidated by anyone, and that attitude and belief has finally been implanted into the team in the European Cup. We've had it in the Premiership for a couple of seasons, but finally we're starting to have that belief, confidence and swagger in Europe as well. That is an ominous prospect for any team that stands in our way.

Chelsea, both yesterday and two weeks ago played like a team who not only beleived or hoped they could win the Champions League or were guest stars in the competiton. They played like a team who knew they were where they belonged and who knew they were good enough to win the Champions League. They played with the swagger and confidence of a team who know how good they are and know what they're capable of, and know that they ae the equal of any team in Europe. They proved why they are the favourites for this competition. They are part of that group of big clubs, they are the team everyone is fearing in the next round and they know it. Not only that, but they are also a team with fantastic spirit and unity, willing to work their socks off. A team who won't give in. They really will fear no-one in the knockout stages and no team will want to play them. This belief is also starting to transmit itself to the fans as well, and certainly in my case the ambition of winning the European Cup has gone from being thinking we might win it, to a belief that we can and will win it. After watching the way we've played and the spirit we've shown against Barcelona over the last two games I beleive that if we can keep playing with this attitude, really work hard and put our minds to it, then there is nothing beyond the reach of this team

The Champions League final next year is in Athens, the scene of our first European triumph inspired by the late great Peter Osgood. How fitting it would be and what a tribute to his memory to win our first ever European Cup in the same venue. With the confidence, belief, attitude and talent in this team it would be no surprise.