And so the European adventure is over for another year. And with it we must take the pain of defeat by 1 goal over two legs and 7 goals each over the 4 games in two seasons, which just shows how close in reality these two clubs are. The Guardian described it as a “quiet death”?, but I prefer to describe it as a “dignified death”?, and even then more of a fading away than any sudden demise. Despite the increasingly desperate attempts of all sections of the media to stoke this up into some sort of grudge match, both managers adopted increasingly intransigent positions of refusing to join the media circus and start another unseemly slanging match. The players had of course said a few things in the immediate aftermath of the game at Stamford Bridge but really it was nothing that the media could latch onto in an attempt to inflame things. On the pitch itself both teams played an intelligent, if slightly dull game more akin to a Boris Spassky/Bobby Fischer chess match.
The feeling today though is less of a disappointment than one might imagine, and one of the main reasons for this is probably down to the lack of controversy during the game. Despite the referee’s penchant for blowing his whistle if someone so much as breathed on an opponent the game was played with a tone of mutual reverence and politeness belying the scale of the prize being played for. If the referee Marcus Merk has any doubts about what he can do on retirement I can guarantee him a career as an actor in any forthcoming stage adaptation of Blackadder goes Forth, playing office bound jobsworth, Captain Darling. Any number of reasons might have contributed to this, all the way from UEFA’s pre-match public warnings on conduct, accompanied no doubt by similar private warnings, to the nervousness of the Barcelona crowd or the dreadful coverage from ITV designed to filter out any remnants of atmosphere to the UK viewer. The players couldn’t have been more reverential to each other if they turned up wearing top hats and tails and spent the duration bowing to each other whilst discussing the relevant merits of renewable energy versus nuclear power. What was apparent was that The Special One had decided to try something a tad different, starting with Robben in the centre of midfield, Drogba up front, with Duff and Cole covering the wings. In any other game, against any other opposition I would have welcomed this, but Drogba can’t seem to cope as a lone striker, plus he was penalised every time he trampled a blade of Camp Nou grass. But the biggest issue with this formation was Damien Duff’s tired and lackadaisical performance, which meant that our best left wing attack option appeared to be Billy Gallas. Duffers look tired and out of sorts, and one wonders if his Republic of Ireland appearance last week and a rough and tumble game against West Brom took their toll on a player not renowned for his robustness. After 30 minutes it seemed to me that SWP should have been given a chance, Joe Cole moved back to the centre, and Robben returned to drifting down the wings as he can do so effectively.
Apart from a few breathtaking moments of skill from Ronaldinho the game was a fairly tame affair showing the best attributes that any teams would like to have, good passing, good and fair tackling irrespective of what the ref thought and of course world class defending from JT and Carvalho, alongside attacking flair from Barca. Overall, a fair result and one from which we should learn as a team and come back stronger from. Let us not forget that Manure took a number of years to learn the ropes of Champions League football, Airline have yet to master it, although this year may be their best chance yet of progressing beyond the first part of the knockout stage and possibly beyond the quarters. Don’t talk about Liverpool because they fluked last year and everyone knows that 9 times out of 10 they’d never recover from a 3 goal deficit by playing 12 minutes of good football in 120.
JM now needs to consider some additional strike power (Shevchenko/Adriano anyone?) to challenge Drogba and force him to lift his game, Crespo should be cherished and persuaded to stay, and Joe Cole allowed to develop his skills to become the Zola-like playmaker even if this means his greedy self coming to the fore more often. JM must surely accept that as honourable as it is to have a team ethic, really superb and successful teams have stand out players who can make a single piece of magic become the turning point of a game. One only has to look at the greats of the past to see what sort of influence they could have on a game whilst not exactly being the best team performers. Names such as Maradona, Pele, Best, Van Basten, Ronaldo (in his prime) and now Ronaldinho can sometimes disappear, but their sublime skills would often surface just for a minute, but long enough to produce something magical to change a game, and that is something we lack at the moment with any consistency. The team has time to grow and let’s not forget that it has only been together for a couple of years in this form. Mistakes can occur and will but we mustn’t get disheartened. Instead, like any good boxer who gets dumped on his arse, we must get up, go to the corner, gather our thoughts, accept the decision, go away and train harder and come back and use the experience to improve.
And so, just a couple of finishing points. After the game I scanned the various media channels for reaction. The vile anti-Chelsea site of Football 365 could barely contain its glee and still seemed hell bent on portraying JM as undignified and ungracious in defeat, as if this is such an important issue. ITV couldn’t be arsed to stay with the game long enough after the final whistle to form any worthwhile punditry such was its eagerness to maximise its advertising revenue. Last year in glorious victory they treated us with the same level of contempt as they did in defeat this year, giving a good 2-3 minutes to Henrikk Larssen and around 30 seconds to JM before cutting his interview short in order to wrap up their broadcast. Why was this? Was there urgent international breaking news (other than us being knocked off our alleged perch)? No, the news was scheduled for 22:30, but ITV (surely ShiteTV would be better) had a programme about the true nature of refereeing. Interesting schedule filler this may be, but a reason to cut short a broadcast of the nation’s top team in Champions League action? God help us should ShiteTV ever win the rights to the Premiership.
I then tuned into You’re on Sky Sports, a sort of low rent visual version of 5 Live’s 6-0-6 phone in programme. I took the maximum dose of around 20 minutes, after which your brain will atrophy and you will spend the rest of your days a forlorn and tragic figure, mumbling to yourself and shuffling along the street to sympathetic glances from people thinking “God, you poor soul, you overdosed on Gary Newbon”?. I watched and listened as ShiteTV reject Gary Newbon adopted his best anti-Chelsea, pro-Liverpool, love Airline FC stance and took calls from various morons hell bent on declaring their glee that The Arrogant One had got his come-uppance. I believe to get your call aired on this programme you have to provide full medical proof that you have undergone a lobotomy, and a history of having no mates. It also helps if Macdonalds refused to employ you on the basis you were unlikely to achieve even a single star. According to Newbon and the totally ineffective and barely coherent Kevin Ratcliffe we had basically let the country down, despite them being part of the very industry that has decried our achievements from the beginning. Alan Green on 5 Live, normally an intelligent commentator with only a small anti-Chelsea bias seemed determined to put this down as the beginning of the end for the team, and another on the Breakfast show was implying that JM would leave next year if we don’t win in order to go to Spain and prove his worth there. The only sensible comments from any area of the media I witnessed was from Nigel Spackman and from Frank McLintock of all people, both of whom seemed to think that Barcelona edged the match over two legs but that in reality there is a Rizla paper between the teams in terms of strength. As I’ve said before… damned if we do, damned if we don’t.
I’ll be back in the Matthew Harding Lower, gate 13, row V, seat 89 as usual this Saturday. I’ll have my normal chat with the people around me and then, hopefully, we will come out and give Spuds a good tonking as a positive reaction to last night’s defeat. Normal Service will be resumed!
Keep The Blue Flag Flying High!