May 20, 2012

Chelsea FC: The Best Team on the Planet

In the end it's just that simple. Chelsea FC, the team that for two thirds of the 2011-2012 season could do little right, did just enough to defeat Bayern Munich yesterday and claim their first-ever Champions League (or equivalent) trophy.

In so doing, Blues take the throne of club soccer and the unofficial title of best team in the world. It is a dubious distinction for a side that (according the the Premiership table at least) is just the third-best in London and lost two of its last five matches this season--to go along with various transgressions earlier in the campaign (in a 17-game stretch dating to December 17, Chelsea managed just six victories. The wins came against Wolves, QPR, Sunderland, Portsmouth, Bolton and Birmingham City). Still, Chelsea deserve both honors: the Champions League trophy and "best team in the world" moniker. For the following reasons:

1. While Chelsea were certainly not the best club throughout 2011-2012, it's where you finish that counts. After all, we are calling them "the best team in the world RIGHT NOW." It's hard to argue, after defeating Barcelona over 180 minutes and Bayern Munich over 120 (plus penalties), that Blues could not defeat any team in the world at present. Yes, even Premier League champions Manchester City who beat them on the field of play as recently as March 21.

2. Results matter. Clearly Chelsea's style leaves a lot to be desired. At its worst it is a throwback to the 1990s Italian defensive bulwark stuff, which makes sense since that's when Roberto di Matteo plied his trade as a player. That's a shame, but winning ugly is still winning. And how exactly would you expect somebody to play on opponents' grounds in the latter stages of a winner-take-all tournament? Also, Chelsea have this attacker, Didier Drogba, who would be completely alien to Italian national teams of any era, and this not just for superficial reasons. In fact, the entire soccer world has never quite seen anything like Drogba. Most strikers are short, spry fellows. Few have the prowess for finishing and nose for the goal like DD does. Which brings us to the next point...

3. Didier Drogba. This is ultimately what sets Chelsea apart. The 34-year old Ivory Coast international combines an innate scoring ability and imposing physical presence with nerves of steel and a clamoring for the biggest moments of the biggest games. Soccer is a team game and you need 11 guys to do the job and do it well. In that sense, Drogba is merely a role player. It just so happens that his role is to score goals and as a pure goalscorer it could be argued that Drogba is among the very best to ever play the game. Or at least among recent generations: More clutch than Romario and Ronaldo, more prolific than Maradona (as a goal scorer), more imposing than Lineker. We all rave about Messi's brilliance and rightfully so, but on the field of play, over 180 minutes, Drogba's Chelsea got the better of Messi's Barca (see item 2 above: "results matter").

4. Who's their competition for best club in the world? Start with the league champions first: Man City are branded by having exited the Champions League in the group stage. Juventus? Didn't play in Europe this season so we can't take them seriously. Real Madrid? Lost to Bayern in the Champions League semis. Montpellier? No way. Porto? Looked horrible against Man City in Europa League action.

Does this mean the Champions League winner automatically gets the "best club in the world" title? Not always, though in recent years it's hard to argue against the winners. You'd have to go back to 2005 and the legendary "miracle of Istanbul" to find a club (Liverpool) that was not the best in the world at that time. But that's another argument for another day.

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