Jim White

Experience is Chelsea’s only hope

Jim White

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Andriy Shevchenko put it pretty succinctly: tonight is the game that could turn our perceptions of the sort of season Chelsea have had on their head. The Ukrainian, who hardly set west London alight during his two years at Stamford Bridge, was showing journalists round the facilities in Kiev ahead of Euro 2012.

And once questions about the scarcity of hotel accommodation in Donetsk had been dealt with ("everybody is ringing me, not for spare tickets, but if I have spare rooms," he said) thoughts turned to his old club's chances against the world's greatest team tonight.

Unlike Gary Neville, he did not think Sunday's encounter with Arsenal was the most important game on Chelsea's horizon.

"I know Chelsea is used to competing for the title, so this season has not been a success in Premier League," he said. "But the season is not over. So if they win tonight it will change how their season looks. They get to the final, everything changes."

He is right there. Victory against Barcelona and those miserable days scratching and scrabbling around under Andre Villas-Boas's hapless leadership will be long forgotten, as consigned to the past as comprehensively as the man himself. And his Frank Spencer raincoat.

Were Chelsea to emerge victorious, Shevchenko is convinced it will be down to one thing and one thing only: experience.

"All my old partners' experience of European football will help," he said. "Frank Lampard, John Terry, Didier Drogba: they know what to do in these games."

Indeed, it is not hard to suggest that, given the overwhelming superiority of the Barcelona side in every other department, experience is about all they have going for them at the Bridge. After all, Drogba, Lampard, Terry, Cech, Cole; they were all involved when Chelsea felt they were deprived of their rightful place in the Champions League final in 2009 by refereeing decisions. That and Andres Iniesta's thunderbolt shot. They were there before even Shevchenko arrived. And they are still there long after he returned to his homeland to enter semi-retirement.

But while Barcelona have developed as a side since then, adding players like David Villa to make the mix ever more potent, Chelsea remain almost totally indebted to that core group of players. Juan Mata apart, no-one has improved things at the club. Indeed Roberto Di Matteo, the current stand-in manager, has recognised the single most important element of being Chelsea boss: in an institution as twitchy as theirs, there is no point looking towards the future. That is a view that is a luxury for the man in the dugout. Much better to concentrate on the present. It was a fundamental Vilas Boas failed to grasp

The Portuguese's failure was not that he recognised that Chelsea needed rebuilding, nor even that he attempted to ease some of the old guard out of the first team.  It was that he did not have sufficiently good players to bring in in their stead. No point leaving out Lampard when the best you can replace him with is Raul Meireles. Or Drogba when it is Fernando Torres you expect to lead the line.

Absolutely playing for the moment, Di Matteo has restored the old school to Chelsea's heart. On Sunday at the FA Cup semi final, there were 10 players on the pitch who had turned out for Jose Mourinho at Stamford Bridge. And he left five seasons ago. Admittedly three of them — William Gallas, Carlo Cudicini and Scott Parker — were playing in Spurs colours. But still the seven who turned out in blue shirts emphasised the return to the former values.

And they are what could push Chelsea through this tie. Of course Barca are superior in the passing, their ability to keep possession, their finishing. In Messi they have a player untouched elsewhere in the football world. But Chelsea have an indomitable spirit personified by their old guard. And, as they showed with the first goal on Sunday, there is no need to be aesthetically pleasing to be effective. A hefty hump forward when Drogba is in the mood he was against Tottenham and no defence, not even one marshalled by Gerard Pique, can stop him.

Shevchenko reckoned there are just three things Chelsea need to do to overcome Barca: defend better, keep the ball better and take their chances better. It sounds almost ludicrous in its diminution. But there is truth in it. Were Chelsea to do all three, they could head to the Camp Nou with the advantage. Then, you never know.

After all, they have beaten Barca in the past. On most of those occasions they did so with Terry, Drogba, Lampard and Cech in the team. That is what you call experience.

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