LONDON — You believe winning has nothing to do with lucky charms, and that losing cannot be blamed on a curse? Me, too.
But how do we explain Chelsea? The London club contradicts conventional thinking with its habit of appearing to be outplayed in European finals but emerging victorious, as it did Wednesday night against Benfica in the Europa League final, just as it did last year against Bayern Munich in the Champions League final.
To be sure, there is a winning gene in Chelsea.
Its owner, Roman Abramovich, mocks the theory that stability in the coaching department is essential to a team’s success. The Russian will soon make his 10th coaching change in 10 years. In those years, he has put 11 trophies in a cabinet that was bare before he bought the club.
Those trophies are not trinkets. Abramovich and his Chelski have won the full set of cups representing every competition open to them.
With each change of team management comes an expensive and inevitable change of personnel on the field. However, the core of the side winning all that silverware remains goalkeeper Petr Cech, defender Ashley Cole and, arguably the pillar of it all, the captain Wednesday night, Frank Lampard.
There has to come a time when Lampard will be phased out of the team. His game is built on industry, on running between defense and attack, and on a desire to score match-winning goals.
But he will turn 35 in June, and Chelsea’s higher management has indicated that there will be no new contract for Lampard after this season. There is a hasty rethinking under way now. It is John Terry, the club’s usual captain, who keeps on missing the big nights through either injury or suspension, and it is Lampard who leads in his stead.
Lampard’s perseverance has now run through more than 800 matches, and he has just eclipsed the all-time record of Bobby Tambling’s 202 goals in a Chelsea shirt.
Tambling played less than half the games, 370, through the 1960s. But scoring was his purpose: He was an out-and-out striker. Lampard is something else, an athlete covering more territory in an era when the sport has speeded up beyond recognition from Tambling’s time.
The financial rewards, too, are incomparable. It will cost Chelsea millions to keep Lampard, but his price will almost certainly be paid now that he has led the team back into the top four in England, and to the Europa League trophy.
He did not score Wednesday, but he struck the crossbar. The goals came from Fernando Torres and, after Benfica had equalized through an Óscar Cardozo penalty, on a header from Chelsea defender Bransilav Ivanovic in the third and final minute of added time.
That winning header summed up Ivanovic, a Serb who never ceases to fight to win a game. It came from a corner, forced by Ramires, a fighter who never ceases to chase. Ivanovic is a big man, but when he leaped off the ground, two defenders — André Almeida and Jardel — were feeble bystanders at his side.
The header looped beyond the reach of the Benfica goalkeeper Artur; the final was won and lost. Chelsea had prevailed through a never-say-die team spirit against an opponent that out-passed them throughout; it was the same story as a year ago in Munich, where the Blues defeated Bayern Munich on penalty kicks.
The Chelsea coach that night, Roberto di Matteo, lasted half a season and was paid off. Chelsea’s next coach, Rafa Benítez, was crassly labeled “interim coach” by Abramovich’s men. Benítez was reviled by the fans, yet he turned a divided team into a winner again.
He will, nevertheless, be gone before this month is out, replaced by Chelsea’s former coach, José Mourinho. Barely a season has gone by when Mourinho has not taunted Benítez, claiming that the latter follows him around Europe, picking up the legacy of teams built by him.
This time, the Spaniard, Benítez, can claim that the shoe is on the other foot. For all the criticism thrown at Benítez, his record in Europe is restored, and it is the Portuguese, Mourinho, who now follows him.
And Benfica? It is a team built largely on South American imports, yet curiously one that suffers from the Portuguese custom of so often producing beautiful, flowing and inventive soccer, but without an end product.
“We are very sad,” Artur said Wednesday. “We showed to the world that Benfica is now ready to start winning.” No, sir. You and your colleagues showed plenty of classy movement and intricate build-up play. But so much of it was lateral passing, and so often the moves petered out through one short pass too many. And so darned often the ball was stolen from Benfica by the hard-working Lampard or his two midfield accomplices, Ramires and David Luiz. Both Brazilian, and both sold to Chelsea by Benfica.
That is one reality of modern soccer. The Lisbon club discovers and imports Latin American talents, but it cannot hold onto the winners among them when predators like Chelsea come shopping.
Abramovich may be a throwback to Gianni Agnelli, once the paymaster at Juventus. Agnelli was probably less impatient, less ruthless in discarding the coaches — but he believed that players are important, managers are expendable.
Or maybe there is another explanation. Wednesday was the seventh European final that Benfica has contested and lost in more than half a century. The seventh loss since Bela Guttmann, the team’s Hungarian coach, walked out in 1962.
Guttmann’s Benfica had beaten Real Madrid to win back-to-back European Cups, but when he was refused a bonus, he quit. “Not in a hundred years from now,” said Guttmann, “will Benfica win another European Cup.” We don’t believe in curses, do we?