Ah, the Carling Cup. It’s a competition that might have been designed purely to take the sting out of defeat. (Unless of course the defeat is at Wembley, in the final, against Spurs – let’s call it a design flaw.) With the blessing of hindsight one hardly cares that the great Mourinho presided over one of his astonishingly rare home reverses in this competition – on penalties, to Charlton: honestly, it’s impossible not to remember it with an odd kind of smile rather than the usual wince. Last season we fell at its first hurdle against the Newcastle second string, but of all the black marks against Ancelotti’s record that now seems the most utterly insignificant. So how should we measure the significance or otherwise of the game I’ve just got home from watching?
On my right shoulder sits the angel, beaming his oddly permanent smile (think Mr Abramovich, who always looks as if someone’s just told him a very faintly amusing joke about Belgians), saying it really won’t matter much at all once the initial unpleasantness wears off. With three extremely important games coming up, our progress through a competition in which both Manchester clubs (unarguably stronger than we are at the moment) still have an interest won’t distract us for long. Some important players – notably Meireles and Ivanovic; it was unfortunate that Ramires and Mata couldn’t join them – had a complete rest. Take away the sadly justifiable taunts of the impressively large travelling Scouse section, and do we really care about the downside?
On my left shoulder sits the demon. (Dennis Wise in a taxi.) He says:
- We’re sure as hell (demon … hell … see what he did there?) not going to win anything else this year, so defeat in a game where victory would have given us a 1 in 3 chance of having Cardiff City between us and a Wembley final is a bad pratfall;
- Our record against the better teams in the league is dreadful, and prolonging that sequence at home will just give extra air to the inevitable-but-pointless “Chelsea in crisis” media shouting contest;
- We played the two strikers who are supposed to represent our imminent post-Drogba future, and neither of them looked any more like scoring than Andy Carroll, which is genuinely terrifying;
- We have just wasted the credit gained from a decent performance at the weekend, and now go into an important away game with momentum lost;
- If this was our kids against their kids, then, truth be told, their kids won.
So, what of the game?
Selection was much as expected, with the possible exception of an uncharacteristic formation: to my eyes, a 4-1 [Romeu] 2-1 [Josh] -2. One might have expected the usual 4-3-3, with Kalou and Malouda flanking Torres and Lukaku waiting his turn on the bench. The fact that Kalou didn’t play at all even in this game surely means that his time at Chelsea is over. I won’t rejoice at this anything like as much as everyone else will.
In the first minutes, a delicious back-heel from Josh released Crazy David into the ‘Poo box. Some kind of ricochet let him and the ball go past the defender, who appeared to turn and trip him, for the world’s most obvious penalty.
I haven’t seen any replays so I have no idea whether I’m mistaken. I sit near the front of the upper East stand, more or less exactly in line with the edge of the box at the Shed End: I couldn’t have had a better view. My impression was that the referee was about to give a penalty and was stopped by the linesman. No doubt one or two among the hundreds of people who always post after our defeats will let me know the truth.
The game settled into an unremarkable bout of harmless back-and-forth. With Carroll, Nando and Lukaku all astonishingly hopeless in their different ways, and the ‘Poo’s defensive formation easily containing what little movement we had, nil-nil and penalties looked virtually certain; a prospect the ‘Poo seemed very happy with.
Did I say penalties? For no reason at all that I could see, the ‘Poo were suddenly awarded one. Now given the way their players reacted, I’m actually pretty confident something happened: if I had to guess I’d say some kind of handball in Alex’s aerial challenge, but honestly I have no idea. Up lumbered Wor Andy, seeking redemption. Down went Turnbull, and down went Carroll’s confidence, already so flat it must nearly qualify as a two-dimensional object.
Meanwhile, Josh attempted to battle through some kind of injury, presumably caused by a gust of wind banging into his sad chicken legs. Poor fellow. He’s our future, as Robbie announced this week, but it’s increasingly obvious that our future is at least a season away, and his chance to impress never got going, short of a couple of wonderful back-heel touches. Off he went, to be replaced by Ramires, presumably on the theory that Ramires is incapable of tiredness. (That’s why they called him the “Blue Kenyan” – a faintly iffy nickname; it reminds me of the way a trio of attacking players of Turkish descent who led the line for the Swiss national team were apparently called “The Kebab Connection”.)
Half time. The fellow next to me, whose running commentary on the game consisted of “farking … cunt Scousers … cunts … fark … I ‘ate them cunts … ‘e’s a farker …” etc., turned to me, concentrated on digging up the other half of his vocabulary, and said, “That was a pen.” Yes, it probably was, but by that stage any sense of injustice seemed like a pretty futile gesture.
We’d been sluggish, humdrum, and on the whole not very interested. Nando kept running into massed defenders as if tomorrow’s headline writers could somehow guarantee a way through them; Lukaku was unable to keep the ball anywhere near his feet. A penalty looked like the only way we were going to score. To be fair, the same applied to the ‘Poo. (As long as Wor Andy wasn’t the one taking it.)
Except of course that they found others ways to score that didn’t involve the comically hapless £35 million Mr Wobble.
The first goal looked to involve a player who was a very long way offside. Murmurs around me afterwards suggested Bosingwa (who had a poor game) had played him on. Again, I’ve not seen highlights. Either way, it was an appallingly familiar concession. A diagonal ball over the top leaves the whole defence exposed, and the finish is utterly elementary. Think Leverkusen; think Johnson.
The second goal is the kind of goal that ought not to be conceded but often is – that’s why people get excited about set pieces. I have no idea who messed up, though since it was the impressive Martin Kelly who scored I’m afraid it may have been Ryan Bertrand (who otherwise emerged with a lot of credit from the game).
We’d never looked like scoring one goal, let alone two. The removal of Lukaku and the introduction of Mata helped pick the pace up, and our play became noticeably more coherent and threatening, but still without actually making good chances.
So, out we go, more disheartened than actually disappointed I suspect. Given that we played a far from first-string team, are there any conclusions we can draw about longer-term issues? Here’s my stab at a few:
- Of the kids, Bertrand did reasonably well at both ends of the pitch, and looks like a potential first-team player. Romeu was efficient, though (not surprisingly) less effortless than he’d been on Saturday. Lukaku looked very out of touch. He seemed fine until the ball arrived at his feet, at which point it invariably disappeared to points unknown. Mind you, Drogs was like that in his first season at the club.
- Of the other second stringers, Alex didn’t show any signs of being a better bet than JT, Malouda had one of those games that makes everyone want him to be sold as soon as possible, and Bosingwa (so impressive in Germany) looked like he didn’t give a monkey’s. Turnbull saved a penalty. When he came out for the second half and approached the goal at the Shed End, it seemed to me that the ‘Poo fans there applauded him. A nice gesture, if I interpreted it correctly.
- Of the people who may or may not be second stringers, Frank was unable to influence the game at all, and on this showing will not play instead of Meireles, and Nando … he came alive a bit in the last ten minutes but he showed very very little overall, though there was very little going on behind him and we know he prefers the game to be played at a much zippier pace. But much as we all want him to do well, he, err, didn’t.
- Of the regular starters, Crazy David was excellent. Needless to say there’ll be people queueing up to say that he was rubbish, a liability, etc.; he wasn’t. Ramires also looked like the only source of energy going forward, and by the end of the game he might almost have been the only reason to keep watching.
- Overall, forget the idea that the kids will save us this season. During a run like ours, anyone who’s not playing will inevitably seem ten times better than they actually are. We’re not going to regain our place in the top four just by swapping the bench for half the first team.
- Having said that, a few players – notably Meireles, Ivanovic, Ramires, Mata and Studge – are beginning to look indispensable. All five are youngish; none played under Mourinho.
Like it or not, the long-awaited transition is being forced upon us.
Do your best to enjoy it.
The press reports
The Daily Telegraph, Jason Burt: “The Carling Cup doesn’t matter — as Roman Abramovich told Andre Villas-Boas — and the Chelsea manager is apparently not in danger of losing his job. Yet. But he is losing too many matches and that simply can’t continue. This was another defeat, another seeping of much-needed confidence, another questioning of the “new Chelsea” promised by the new man, another question mark over where the club is heading. It may well be the fourth competition in terms of Abramovich’s priorities and, in truth, it doesn’t really matter but it was a third home defeat in four — and another to Liverpool, who deservedly swept into the semi-finals, and whose manager Kenny Dalglish maintained his astonishing record of dominating Chelsea (10 wins and three draws in two spells).”
The Independent, Rory Smith: “It was supposed to be about Fernando Torres and Andy Carroll; for a moment, it threatened to be about Phil Dowd. In the end, though, as it always seems to be these days, it will be about Andre Villas-Boas. Another defeat, another callow, anodyne performance, beaten by Liverpool and out of the Carling Cup: it could not be about anything else.”
The Guardian, Dominic Fifield: “The Portuguese has now overseen three defeats in four home matches, a troubling statistic with such a decisive Champions League group game to come here against Valencia on Tuesday. This selection had been youthful, maintaining a policy consistent through their three-match involvement in this competition, though the only real mark left by any of the juniors came courtesy of Romelu Lukaku’s studs on Henderson’s shin just before the interval.”
The Official Chelsea FC Website: “It was a bad night for Chelsea as Liverpool left Stamford Bridge victorious for the second time in as many weeks. A reasonable first-half display saw the Blues denied a strong penalty claim early on and then survive going behind when Ross Turnbull saved an Andy Carroll spot-kick. Chelsea then started the second half by hitting the bar but Liverpool’s opener just before the hour drained confidence from a Chelsea side less experienced than our opponents and when Martin Kelly doubled the lead minutes later, it left the Blues with too much to do.”