Can old brigade lead Chelsea to Champions League glory?
The name of Andre Villas-Boas was scarcely mentioned at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night but for Frank Lampard in particular, Chelsea's second-leg comeback against Napoli was all the evidence he needed to make his point about the value of the club's old guard.
The thoughts of the departed Portuguese manager on the performance of the squad he left just 12 days ago would have been intriguing but in his absence it was the players at Chelsea who had the final word. They go into the Champions League quarter-final and semi-final draw this lunchtime as the only English side left in the competition and with Villas-Boas's purge of certain senior players temporarily suspended at the very least.
Left out of the last England squad by caretaker manager Stuart Pearce and dropped to the bench for the first leg of the Napoli tie, Lampard, more than any other, had lost the most under Villas-Boas. There is no question that Lampard is in the latter stages of his career but on Wednesday night he delivered an understated but pointed critique of his former manager.
Asked whether the 4-1 win over Napoli had disproved the theory that Chelsea's old guard needed replacing, Lampard said: "A lot of that gets said from the outside. People who are here just want to win games and I think you need your old boys, or your experience in the team, as well as you need the young ones coming through and their enthusiasm.
"The amount of nights that Didi [Drogba] has stood up, the amount of nights that John [Terry] has stood up, is what Chelsea are all about. If that can get us a result like that then we go with it. You can't win these sorts of competitions without that. We need to be on top form, we need to be playing well. But you can see the desire in the players.
"You're not talking about old boys whose careers are flitting out. They're players that want to play, players that want to win. You can see that. When you've got that, if you can add to that with the youth and the quality we've got around the team, then that's a recipe and we have to carry on with that."
The obvious question was whether Chelsea's players would have served up the kind of performance they did on Wednesday with Villas-Boas still manager. Given that Lampard and Ashley Cole did not start the first leg there would have been no guarantees that they would have done so under the Portuguese at Stamford Bridge.
"It's too hypothetical a question," Lampard said. "I'm not going to answer. We can't say whether we'd have won or not. We performed well. We performed well at other stages this season. Obviously, consistently, we haven't performed well enough. Whether we could've done or not, it's the same players.
"You see it time and time again: when managers change, the fortunes of the team change. That's just the way it is – I don't know why. It's not whether it's right or wrong. We weren't performing consistently – that showed in the league – and the owner's changed the manager. But in terms of players, you just have to try to give everything.
"You can't ask players to be at their best throughout a season necessarily – it doesn't work that way – but a night like that shows the desire of players. And with that, we can go a long way."
It was certainly a curious end to Wednesday night. There was Terry on the touchline directing operations, to the extent that the old joke about him being the de facto manager of the club, whoever happened to hold the official position, rang more true than usual.
Then Roman Abramovich's presence in the dressing room made it seem like the whole dysfunctional Chelsea family was united. Yet for all the excitement that accompanies a dramatic extra-time win and an unexpected place in the draw, it does not change the fact that Lampard, Drogba, Terry and co will not be able to go on forever. The suggestion that Drogba is delaying a decision on his future to see whether Jose Mourinho returns this summer shows that long-term planning is not exactly Chelsea's strong point.
Given that this was the best night of the season it would seem impolite to mention that Romelu Lukaku, who has virtually disappeared, is now the subject of a loan inquiry from – who else? – former Chelsea sporting director Frank Arnesen at Hamburg. Or that Raul Meireles (suspended for Wednesday's game), Oriol Romeu and Josh McEachran are still a long way from taking over at Chelsea and the less said about Fernando Torres, the better.
The old problems still exist even if for one glorious night they faded into the haze of excitement. The matchwinner Branislav Ivanovic who, at 28, certainly is, along with the likes of Ramires and David Luiz, one of the potential mainstays of the future, claimed age did not matter. "I cannot agree age makes you old or young," he said. "It depends what you give on the pitch."
What is different today is that Chelsea go into a draw for the Champions League quarter-finals with nothing to lose. The season has been something of a shambles up to this point and the suggestion they might win the trophy would sound unreasonable even to their demanding Russian owner.
Their manager is not fretting about his fate because, as with Guus Hiddink three years ago, Roberto Di Matteo is not the manager anyway. Under Hiddink, Chelsea eliminated Juventus and Liverpool in the knockout rounds and surely would have reached the final were it not for refereeing decisions against Barcelona in the semi-final.
In the Spanish newspapers yesterday, Chelsea were placed with Bayern Munich and Milan in the second tier of teams left in the competition. Clearly the draw that favourites Barcelona and Real Madrid do not want is the one that pits them against each other. But now Chelsea are in the final eight, it seems Europe is not about to write off the last English contenders just yet.
How Chelsea could fare in today's draw
The best team of their generation are seeking to become the first team to retain the European Cup since Milan in 1990. Although they are about to lose their grip on the Spanish title, no one could argue with their quality, their experience or their brand of football. They are the team to beat and the team to avoid.
Any side 10 points clear of Barcelona at home must have something about them. Real blend classic Jose Mourinho discipline and relentlessness with some magnificent attacking players. Cristiano Ronaldo is still phenomenal while Kaka, Mesut Ozil, Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain provide more than adequate support. They would be likely to walk over any non-Spanish side.
The best non-Spanish side left. They bludgeoned Basle 7-0 on Tuesday night – the ruthless Mario Gomez was fed by Franck Ribéry, Thomas Müller and Arjen Robben. Behind the forwards is the heart of the Germany side: Manuel Neuer, Philip Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger. Add in the desperation to atone for the 2010 final defeat in this year's final, at home, and they look very serious.
They might not be as good as they used to be, but their performance in a 4-0 defeat of Arsenal was still that of a high-quality outfit, to say nothing of their four-point lead at the top of Serie A. The midfield is creaking but Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Robinho and Alexandre Pato have the quality to tear through defences, particularly one as unsettled as Chelsea's.
One of the sides who knocked Manchester United out in Group C have more than enough attacking weaponry to cause problems. The muscular Oscar Cardozo, the subtle Nicolas Gaitan and the imaginative Pablo Aimar are dangerous and the quality extends through midfield and defence too. A trip to the Estadio da Luz would not be a comfortable one.
Probably the most manageable of the established sides: Marseilles are eighth in Ligue 1, 19 points behind leaders Paris St-Germain, and they needed a last-minute goal to beat Internazionale in the last 16. They have some good players and there is a competitive atmosphere at the Stade Vélodrome but Roberto Di Matteo would certainly be relieved to see Chelsea sent to France in the quarter-finals.
The first Cypriot club to reach the quarter-finals, Apoel are the story of this season's competition. They work hard for each other, hold their defensive shape and counter-attack well. They might have less quality than the other teams but an away tie in Nicosia would not exactly be hospitable.