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Bluesmen seek swansong


DIDIER DROGBA The Top Drog was at his very best in the semis as Chelsea upstaged holders Barcelona, and furthered his credentials in the FA Cup final. In the twilight of his Chelsea career, can he step up when it matters most?

Even if Italian football has failed to catch the imagination of the neutrals in general, Italian coaches have surely left their mark in the 2011-2012 season in Europe.

A relatively inexperienced Antonio Conte has guided Juventus to their 28th Scudetto, his senior international mate Roberto Mancini has done the same with Manchester City in England and their youngest compatriot Roberto Di Matteo - by an interesting quirk of fate - is aiming to do one better with Chelsea on Saturday in the Champions League final against Bayern Munich.

There are quite a few similarities between the three apart from their sartorial excellence. Yet to touch 50, the three earned the Azzuri shirt in the late eighties and early nineties. After hanging up their boots, in no time, they were back in the spotlight, facing the barbs from the media and the kicks from the whimsical employers, this time in suits instead of jerseys and boots.

The season of 2012 has seen the rise of a few rocking at 40 and some waning like Xavi Hernandez, Carles Puyol, Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard, John Terry and Ashley Cole, in their thirties, but feeling up their ankles and calves after being badgered for more than a decade.

Just like Di Matteo, the quartet of Chelsea mentioned above, has one last card to play, one last hurrah to scream.

Finishing sixth in the Premiership has left the resurgent old guard of Stamford Bridge without a European ticket. Their only hope rests on one superlative, back-breaking, normupsetting, form-belying performance at the Allianz Arena against the aristocrats of Munich, with a pedigree and personnel that can out-psych average teams to subjugation.

There is another small matter concerning money as well. The outcome of the final will play an important role in whether Chelsea's shirt sponsor decides to extend its current deal, according to Samsung's vice-president. The South Korean electronics brand has backed the west London outfit - which has recently partnered up with Formula One team Sauber - since 2005 and currently runs an annual £13 million contract with the club.

So now, it has come down to 90 minutes of gamble, or it may be 120. One may call it a revolution, that was kickstarted one 2004 summer morning at the Imperial College ground. When the players reported for duty, the Portuguese found out that Hernan Crespo was AWOL. When Jose Mourinho handed them a 'code of conduct, ' Crespo's copy went unclaimed. The copy read, "From here, each practice, each game, each minute of your social life must centre on the aim of being champions. "

Journalist Patrick Barclay writes in his seminal work on Mourinho what followed. Two days later, Crespo strolled in from South America, mumbling excuses about flights. He was promptly loaned to AC Milan and Roman Abramovich, Chelsea's Russian patron, broke the bank to lure Didier Drogba from Olympique Marseille for £24 million.

Mourinho didn't live with Chelsea to see them being the champions of Europe but the rolls of blue thunder reverberated throughout.

Saturday may see the yoke really come off Chelsea with Drogba, John Terry, Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole - by now household names sweared upon by legions across continents - ready for one final lunge at the Champions League, Chelsea's Winter Palace. In between years, they lost their Portuguese commissar following reverses in battles against Barcelona, Arsenal and Manchester United in the final on May 21, 2008. Captain JT slipped during the shootout and the title slipped away.

More battles followed and heads kept rolling, the latest being that of Andre Villas-Boas. Midway through the season, Di Matteo was handed the reins with Chelsea going nowhere. It was the beginning of March and the Premiership, by then, had become a Manchester property.

Chelsea went to Naples for their Champions League pre-quarters and lost to the penetration of Edinson Cavani and Ezequel Lavezzi. A 3-1 loss needed to be overturned by a team in disarray. But as they say, a week is a long time in football and three weeks must have been a lifetime. Napoli was the fairytale story of the season till they visited Stamford Bridge three weeks later.

The Italians high-fliers were grounded with a thud. The score read 4-1 in favour of Chelsea with Drogba, Terry and Lampard on the scoresheet. The game turned Di Matteo and Chelsea's season on its head.

Benfica posed no such threats in the quarters but the world was behind Barcelona, who stood in the way of Di Matteo's European mutiny. Billed as a crusade between the infidels and believers, Chelsea had no chance in hell till the Bridge started buzzing.
The battle was fierce as history suggested and Di Matteo shocked the world so much that Pep Guardiola, on the verge of beatification, sought exile from the church.

Di Matteo just took nine weeks to shake the world and earned respect as a bonus. The 20-match reign saw Chelsea being talked about with reverence and awe if not fear. Not to forget the FA Cup triumph against Liverpool.
Will the 21st bring a Cinderella end to the Italian summer? Player count, current form, sick bay list indicate otherwise.

The road to Munich being paved, the rumour mills started working overtime speculating on Di Matteo's future. He is, after all, an interim coach.

Asked if he thought that success or failure in Munich would influence the decision, he said: "My wife has booked our holidays. And I am looking forward to it. There are mobile phones. They work everywhere these days. "
He has set the mood for the Battle in Bavaria. A holiday in Italy may follow soon after.

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