When will it end? Is Chelsea forever scourged by an unequivocal marriage to the issue of racism? Some would surely like to have it that way. Perspective is a powerful thing, and a rigid degree of perspective is needed to counter the myopic stance of the institutions entrusted with supposedly embattling and eradicating an issue that does not belong in the 21st century.
The Martin Luther Kings, Desmond Tutus and all those who dedicated their lives in the crusade against real racism would scoff at the substanceless attempts by football’s domestic and continental legislators. The latter, in particular, continued its thinly veneered policy of imposing laughable fines against national footballing associations for vituperative supporters.
On virtually every major issue, from being the torchbearer on the fight against mass racist behaviour to modern technology, UEFA has demonstrated its antediluvian ways; an institutional thinking that belongs in a bygone era. What happened in Serbia against the England under-21s was far worse than a man’s single isolated moment of madness because it is endemic and representative of a wider undercurrent almost encouraged by daft sanctions.
If reports are to believed, the fines handed down to John Terry and the Serbian FA share a 200,000 pound discrepancy. Yes, it was the club itself that decided to take internal action against Terry, but the pressure-makers, a powerful anti-Chelsea lobby, got their way.
But Terry still remains captain of Chelsea coming into the match in Ukraine. A major loss in their book, I’m sure.
Chelsea have never faced Shakhtar Donetsk and the money and direction of coal magnate Rinat Akhmetov will ensure that the city of Donetsk, its magnificent stadium, and perhaps even imitators of considerable ambition across the Eastern European state, continue to host Champion’s League nights for the foreseeable future. Interestingly, Akhmetov’s fortune is four billion dollars greater than that of Abramovich. They have both spent heavily to procure a very similar ilk of talent.
Privy to the aesthetic nature of the game under Vialli and Ancelotti, the form on display under the club’s current Italian manager is noticeably distinct: a canvas where seemingly uncomplimentary shades of eye catching colours flirt to form what we all hope will be a masterpiece appreciated during – and immortalized after – its time.
While optimism was justifiably abundant coming into the match, wisdom dictates that European nights transform teams and fortunes into markedly different propositions. Coupled with the numbers – Chelsea have only two away wins in eight in the Champions League; Shakhtar have three wins and one draw at home to English opposition alongside 12 consecutive wins out of 12 in their domestic league – this was certainly no excursion to White Hart Lane. In fact, a rare few Eastern outings offer anything less than a formidable and often frustrating challenge.
Robbie Di Matteo does tend to favour a thicker skin in Europe – and understandably so. Eden Hazard, like in Copenhagen, was dropped. Frank Lampard his replacement. Poignantly, Oscar is favored to Hazard when the team might have to perform the dark arts of years prior. The jury has still not reached a verdict on which of the two offers more in terms of outright grit. A resilient Manchester United five days away surely also weighed on the decision.
Gary Cahill stepped out for John Terry, who really should take a page from Al Pacino’s character in Scarface and reveal on his undershirt an inscription that reads, “Say goodnight to the bad guy,” every time he leaves the pitch away from home. To further quote Tony Montana: “You need people like me so you can point your fucking fingers and say, ‘that’s the bad guy!’” Rather fitting.
However, isn’t Cahill, after his titanic performance against Tottenham, deserving of a start in this match? In such trying circumstances, playing Terry is somewhat of a gamble. On one hand, an unwavering ability to remain unfazed allows him to rise highest to score winners from innocuous set pieces and captain his team to thumping victories – as is often the case – while on the other, Terry can misstep badly, as he did against Robin Van Persie’s hat-trick-ladened afternoon at the Bridge this time last year. The odds are certainly on his side, though.
Lastly, Juan Mata has reached the untouchable echelon and Fernando Torres does not have the stamina of the stallion to sustain a never-ending starting role.
Two confident, in-form teams set the pace early on and one could not help but notice the overwhelming Brasileiro nature of, well, São Donetsk. Indeed, Chelsea happily carries a Brazilian contingent, but the recruitment policy at the Donbass Arena is clear.
A rather open start to a continental tie led to some shoddy defending at the back with only three minutes played. David Luiz failed to clear and Terry put on his best impression of Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer statue, raising both arms – and the fans’ eyebrows. The perturbed decision by Terry to do so probably would’ve forced the obnoxiously groomed referee to give a penalty had the ball not bobbled onto Alex Teixeira, who finished with the assured precision that comes when playing the European champions coming off a draw with the Italian champions and basking in the adrenaline of a commendable domestic winning streak.
Chelsea’s response was swift but fruitless and thoughts shifted towards Atletico Madrid’s rampancy given that Shakhtar were playing an equally organized, lethal game with passes were played to the feet of a thoroughly-drilled side.
We weren’t as limp as in Monaco, but Ramires looked the best outlet and I’m inclined to credit Shakhtar’s straight lines of defensive organization for closing down our most potent threats rather than declare it a scathing indictment of an insipid side of the Matteoan Chelsea.
The impressive Willian, who was linked with an arrival to AVB’s Chelsea, caused a significant degree of angst by cutting in from the right. Neither of the right-sided defenders nor the shielding midfielders picked up his movement and decision-making. When a player says a day prior to the match that it would be “really cool” to play for Chelsea, he is going to treat this match as a rehearsal of sorts. Close him down.
An awkward fall soon forced Lampard off and the results of a calf scan are still to be released. Was this mere wear and tear or a sign of an aging legend in his last throes? The injury only accelerated the inevitable substitution and Hazard entered the fray, reverting Chelsea to an almost identical side that seamlessly came from behind in North London. An instant impact from ‘Aza with two crystal ball passes. One wonders whether Robbie got it wrong by fielding a cautious side from the start.
By the end of the half, the growing pains of Chelsea’s new found dynamism were confirmed. The debacle against Atletico Madrid was unfortunately not an anomaly. Rather, we seem incapable of coping with well-organized, counter-attacking sides who know how to keep the ball, particularly in the opposing third and managers who have done just a little more than their homework. Mircea Lucescu, Shakhtar’s Romanian manager, did not flinch even once on the touchline because his game plan, like that of Diego Simone’s, was tailor made to expose Chelsea. The rest of Europe is surely taking note as well.
Were it not for Petr Cech, the scoreline would’ve surely been damning. Utterly outplayed and dominated. Shakhtar’s high level of comfort was exemplified by one of their players on the bench, seated relaxed and covered in what appeared to be his grandmother’s intricately knitted woollen quilt. That’s too comfortable for a third matchday in the Champions League.
A draw would be a blessing. While Hazard squandered a chance on one end, his inexperience told as he lost possession in a part of the pitch he should have never had the ball to begin with. Shakhtar broke decisively and the star of the evening, Fernandinho, finished with the same fervour as his compatriot earlier.
We can never underestimate what it means for the Shakhtars of this world to dismiss the title holders in such ruthless fashion; for the Brazilian players of the Ukrainian side to show up their more celebrated countrymen; for a Ukrainian oligarch to smirk at his Russian counterpart; for Lucescu to galvanize his reputation.
Some of the finest young Brazilian talent was on show in Donetsk and the home side’s Selecão outshone Chelsea’s trio wholeheartedly. Fernandinho, in particular, had clearly not been identified as a threat worth picking up because the red carpet was laid out for his bursts from midfield. A bulldog in the centre of the park winning back possession, gnawing away at our paltry attempts of inspiring a comeback, and an absolute bloodhound in and around the box.
That’s not to say Chelsea did not have some rather decent chances. The failure to capitalize, however, typified the balance of power on the night.
Shakhtar also knew how to see this game out. Hazard was surrounded at every opportunity and Torres was forced wide and pressured into frustration. Notice I have not mentioned him until now despite one of his worst performances in a Chelsea shirt. His touches were schoolboy and decisions baffling. But, as mentioned earlier, he will be run into the ground if plans aren’t made to maintain an option besides Daniel Sturridge as a lone wolf up front. Could Victor Moses really have done much worse leading the line yesterday?
Perhaps the most encouraging – and endearing – quality was Chelsea’s refusal to leave Andriy Pyatov a clean sheet. Goal difference could also very well be a deciding factor in this increasingly unpredictable group. Commandant Ivanovic (who else?), staying true to this moniker, powered through the defence when all hope seemed to be lost to cut back splendidly for Oscar to keep it civil. Three goals with three shots on target for our Brazilian playmaker. Too little, too late. Anything else would have been deeply unjust on Shakhtar, their preparation, execution and commitment.
It is telling that Chelsea looked disjointed from the start when both Terry and Lampard are in the side. Then again, as I said, this was no excursion to White Hart Lane.
Two must-win home matches and an away trip to Turin will decide this season’s group stage fate. Juventus may just prove to be crucial and, if the current group standings are any indicator of what may be, the Italian or European champions might well be out come the 90th minute mark on matchday six.
Any loss is not be taken lightly at this point in proceedings, but it was effectively a repeat of Leverkusen and home form should see RDM and Co. through if feasible solutions are found to counter Simeone and Lucescu’s perfected attacking template that will surely be emulated, perhaps even by Manchester United.
An indisputable setback for a team whose promise was expected to revel against stern opposition in the East, but the Brazilian realities were something else altogether.
When you win as a team, it would be unfair to brandish an inequitable judgement of performance. By the same token, you can most certainly lose as a whole – and Di Matteo’s boys were collectively beaten. No outfield player delivered a match-winning display. Cech, however, warrants a 10 for keeping it at 2.
Man of the Match
Partially: Petr Cech.
The press reports
The Daily Telegraph, John Percy: “The challenge of breaching Shakhtar’s Donbass Arena fortress proved a bridge too far for Chelsea and a returning John Terry, and despite their effervescent start to the season manager Roberto Di Matteo is now facing a crucial three games in his bid to defend the trophy.”
The Independent, Simon Johnson: “Chelsea are facing a battle to avoid becoming the first holders of the Champions League to fail to progress beyond the group stages after a woeful defeat in Donetsk.”
The Guardian, David Hytner: “The surprise at the end was how narrow it was. Shakhtar missed chances, Petr Cech distinguished himself in the Chelsea goal and it was Oscar, stealing in to meet Branislav Ivanovic’s cross, who reduced the deficit and sparked brief alarm inside a jubilant stadium. An outlandish escape for the visitors, however, was not to happen.”
The Official Chelsea FC Website: “An impressive Shakhtar Donetsk side inflicted our first Champions League defeat under Roberto Di Matteo, scoring early in each half.”