LONDON: Chelsea – perhaps after a five-month delay – are looking not only like European champions but like prospective English Premier League champions once more.
The manner of their 4-2 win away to an excellent Tottenham in the latest London derby underlined how Roberto Di Matteo is succeeding in achieving the evolutionary change which Andre Villas-Boas was hired to undertake in the summer of last year.
Villas-Boas made such a mess of the job, largely because of clumsy man-management (or lack of it), that he was sacked last February. The signs at Tottenham are that he has learned his lessons. In the meantime Di Matteo, the man Villas-Boas brought back into the game, is looking more and more suited to commanding Chelsea’s development.
A great deal of pride was riding on this game. Tottenham had been ‘knocked out’ of the Champions League by Chelsea’s victory over Bayern in Munich last May and Villas-Boas, of course, also had a personal interest in the outcome.
Ironically the decisive individual was Juan Mata. AVB brought him into Chelsea 15 months ago for £26m and he scored two decisive second-half goals in a four-minute spell which turned a prospective 2:1 defeat into a 3:2 lead. Villas-Boas would also have noted that Chelsea won without either ‘big beasts’ John Terry and Frank Lampard in their starting line-up.
The two men who defied AVB’s attempts to reduce their signficance were mere spectators. Terry was starting a four-game domestic suspension as punishment for the racist comment row sparked by his clash a year ago with QPR’s Anton Ferdinand; Lampard was ‘merely’ a substitute, appearing in stoppage-time in place of tiring Eden Hazard.
Both are expected to be back for Tuesday’s Champions League clash with Shakhtar Donetsk. But both of them – and also England leftback Ashley Cole – are on borrowed time.
Lampard and Cole’s contracts expire next summer and they will be offered only one-year extensions while the relationship between Terry and Chelsea will never be the same again after the embarrassment he has caused over the Ferdinand incident.
Chelsea went ahead with a superb strike from England defender Gary Cahill but Spurs battled back into the lead with goals from William Gallas and Jermain Defoe either side of half-time. Chelsea refused to be cowed. Mata scored twice within four minutes just after the hour and substitute Daniel Sturridge tapped in a close-range fourth in a last-minute counter-attack.
Di Matteo shrugged off talk of Chelsea being favourites for the Premier League title. He said: “It’s too early to say that. There are 30 games still to play. It makes us a team that is strong and makes our start even better but with 30 more games I still think that you have to wait until the Christmas period.”
Villas-Boas did not – could not – contest Chelsea’s success. He said: “When I was at Chelsea we signed Mata for his talent and he is certainly not going to stop producing these moments of brilliance like today.”
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