The Guardian, Kevin McCarra: "The sense of jeopardy was a figment of the imagination, but Chelsea were not to know that. With Bordeaux’s defeat in Rome, they could have lost here and still advanced to the knockout phase of the Champions League. As it was, Chelsea showed why there have been uncomfortable times for them in this campaign."
Daily Telegraph, Henry Winter: "Chelsea must get Ricardo Carvalho back in action, pray that Frank Lampard avoids injury and suspension and keep Didier Drogba fit and focused. Chelsea will need Carvalho’s positional nous and knack of the well-timed interception. Missing the banned Lampard on Wednesday night, Chelsea lacked direction in midfield."
The Times, Martin Samuel: "This was barely a return to form for Chelsea, although Yssouf Koné’s equalising goal in the 55th minute gave the tie a brief air of tension, before news came in that Roma were beating Bordeaux, meaning that Chelsea could lose and still progress. In the circumstances, then, perhaps the most pleasing factor was the return to the side, and to scoring form, of Didier Drogba, who was on the field for only seven minutes as a substitute before he relieved the pressure with a sublimely taken winner."
The Independent, Sam Wallace: "Grumpy, rebellious, even irresponsible for getting himself sent off in that Champions League final in May, but once a goalscorer, always a goalscorer. Didier Drogba emerged from the longest sulk in history last night to score the winner for Chelsea which is just about the quickest way to earn forgiveness for all the sins of the modern-day footballer."
Official Chelsea FC Website: "A second-half Cluj goal pegged Chelsea back after Salomon Kalou’s opener but then entered substitute Didier Drogba."
Whilst the rest of the world were partying to celebrate the 40th birthday of the computer mouse, those of us in England were gearing up for something much more important. No, it wasn’t going to the free JLS concert (yep, I am an avid watcher of X Factor) or wondering how to get tickets for the Blur reunion next summer, instead we were bracing ourselves for the biggest game of Big Phil’s Chelsea career so far.
After starting the season in a blaze of glory with a string of victories, we’ve stumbled to a series of draws and costly defeats against the biggest sides. Since then there have been murmurings of discontent at a lack of pace in the side, how we don’t have a Plan B at home and whether or not Phil knows what he’s doing in the big games. A perfect away record in the league has saved him thus far from any real criticism that Avram would have faced after the same set of results but tonight would be a defining game. Defeat would cost the club up to £20m and maybe even result in the sacking of the boss judging by the obsession Roman has with this tournament. Victory however, would guarantee us a place in the knockout stages and depending on the result in Rome, we could even steal top spot, sparing us an inevitable reunion with a certain Portuguese genius currently sitting pretty at the top of Serie A. So it would be a nervy night, reminiscent of the Liverpool campaign of 2004/5 in which they relied on one-off, high-pressure games to get through each round. But on our side was the fact we were only facing CFR Cluj and if we couldn’t beat the mighty champions of Transylvania then we really wouldn’t deserve a place in the next round.
Phil resisted the temptation to steamroller the opposition by unveiling a 4-4-2 system with Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka leading the attack and instead just made a single change with Joe Cole coming in for the suspended Frank Lampard. This would be the chance for all those Lampard haters to see how we fare without our best midfielder and the early signs weren’t promising. The midfield trio of John Obi Mikel, Deco and Michael Ballack struggled to keep the ball and throughout the first half they looked slow, plodding and suffering from a lack of creativity. With Cluj defending deep, Anelka failed to make any impact in the opening stages and we had to wait until the 25th minute until the first real chance as Joe Cole wasted a clear opening on the edge of the box by slicing wide. The same old problems we’ve been seeing at home, principally a lack of chances and a worryingly slow tempo produced a nervous and frustrated atmosphere as Anelka dropped deeper and deeper just to get involved. We looked out of ideas until a lovely Deco free-kick fell to the feet of Salomon Kalou six yards out, which even he managed to finish. From then we began to string a few passes together and Joe Cole, our most creative attacker began to get more involved in the game.
The second half began slowly until a sustained spell of pressure as the side looked for the second goal which would secure qualification. A lightening counter-attack from Deco and Ballack set up Joe Cole, but a heavy first touch meant the chance was lost. This nervousness in front of goal continued as Anelka squandered another one-on-one and this would cost us as Cluj raced up the other end to equalise with Yssouf Kone easily heading in at the far post after some woeful marking from Alex. Joe Cole nearly restored our lead from kick-off but it was the introduction of that most divisive of characters, Drogba, that would save our blushes. A lovely chip through to him from Joe Cole, then some world-class control and an instinctive finish under the keeper. A reminder of how good he can be when he’s on his game and his presence resulted in a much improved second half. In the end it was a relatively comfortable ending and getting the win was all that mattered but another stuttering performance does not bode well for the knockout rounds with Barcelona and Inter waiting.
- Didier Drogba. The real Didier has returned, for now. He was able to hold the ball up unlike Anelka and his goal was brilliant. He responded by holding his finger up to the home crowd and it may now be the time to back him. ‘Welcome back. We’ve missed you,’ were the words of the Chelsea tannoy announcer, which probably upset Nico but from now on he’ll be first choice, at home anyway.
- The result. We’re through and with Inter and Barca both qualifying top, it’s inevitable that we’ll either have a high profile return to the Nou Camp or we’ll be welcoming back The Special One. We also showed we could win without Lamps, just about.
- Second half performance. With Didier on the pitch, we began to play at a higher tempo and a little but more direct. It was a much improved performance and apart from the defensive lapse, it was promising to see that we can win at home.
- Free scarf. In these credit crunching times, it was nice for Roman to give us an early Christmas prezzie.
- Alex. Slow, cumbersome and is now our weakest link. Phil’s Brazilian bias continues because based on performances he should be demoted and/or sold. Branislav Ivanovic deserves to keep his place and tonight’s performance confirmed to me that Alex should be shipped out and his place should go to Michael Mancienne.
- Nicolas Anelka. Was anonymous in the first half and after Didier was brought on, not much improved. He was given a deeper, freer role and still looked lost. He doesn’t enjoy playing at Stamford Bridge and should be kept for the away games.
- First half performance. We still look stumped as to how to break down teams who come for a draw. Maybe we’ll see a return to the days where we looked deadly from set-pieces but before Deco’s free-kick, we never looked like scoring.
- Petr Cech – 6/10 – Didn’t do much apart from pick the ball out of his net. An improved kicking performance though after his Bolton debacle.
- Jose Bosingwa – 7/10 – Rampaged forward all game and if he can provide a more consistent final ball, he would be one of the best players in the world.
- Alex – 4/10 – Poor. I’ve never taken to this cumbersome elephant but his lack of tactical awareness, bad concentration and random roams upfield are beginning to cost us. Woeful marking for their goal and why he has immediately returned to the team in place of Ivanovic is a mystery.
- John Terry – 7/10 – A rock at the back who’s returning to his best form.
- Ashley Cole – 6/10 – Solid more than anything.
- John Obi Mikel – 8/10 – Patrolled midfield effortlessly and it was his surge forwards that set up Joe and Didier for the goal. A trademark lunge resulted in a yellow card and strangely he was taken off by Phil. Hopefully it was nothing more than to rest him but Mikel did look unhappy as he trudged off.
- Joe Cole – 8/10 – A welcome return. Our most creative attacker and despite looking rusty in front of goal he’s a definite upgrade on Salomon Kalou and Florent Malouda. A lovely assist for the winner and he’ll be crucial over the Christmas period.
- Michael Ballack – 6/10 – Looked slightly unfit and was pretty slow in the first half. Much improved in the second but I’m not sure if he’ll be first choice at the end of January when Michael Essien returns.
- Deco – 7/10 – Started slowly as he lost the ball a couple of times. But in the second half, he joined forces with Joe in driving the team forward and when given the time and space, he can look like an artist on the ball.
- Salomon Kalou – 5/10 – It would be harsh to call him useless, but apart from the tap-in he performed his old trick of running down cul-de-sacs to perfection. Taken off at the earliest moment for Didier Drogba.
- Nicolas Anelka – 4/10 – Anonymous and as Sam Wallace said in The Independent on the weekend, he really shouldn’t play at the Bridge anymore. When teams defend deeply he can’t use his pace and turns into a passenger. Will surely return to the bench.
- Didier Drogba (sub) – 8/10 – Looked hungry and was out to prove a point. World-class control and finish for the winner and celebrated by telling the crowd to shut up. He may still be an arrogant prima donna but he’ll prove crucial if we are to win anything this season.
- Juliano Belletti (sub) – 6/10 – Didn’t do anything apart from get booked.
Man of the Match
I’ll give it to Didier despite an impressive return from Joe. He may only have come on as a second-half sub but he was the reason why we started to play some of the most effective attacking football seen at the Bridge in recent weeks. He looked up for the fight and if he stays fit he should help bring the Premier League title back to the Bridge. He could even make up for his red-card shame in Moscow by firing us all the way to glory in Rome.
So we got through and Phil finally passed a big-game test. But the first half performance showed how much we’ve missed Didier, especially at home and without him we stand little hope getting past a Lionel Messi inspired Barca or the machine that is Jose’s Inter.