The Observer, Jamie Jackson: “Chelsea are still on course for a historic first Double. An often soporific FA Cup semi-final ended with Carlo Ancelotti’s team setting up a meeting with Tottenham or Portsmouth, who clash here tomorrow, in May’s showpiece. By then this team will hope to have bagged the Premier League, and be halfway to immortality in their west London manor.”
Sunday Telegraph, Duncan White: “There is something about Didier Drogba in this competition at this venue. He scored in the semi-final and the final last year and he did it again, his instinctive finish the goal that effectively sent holders Chelsea into the final.”
Official Chelsea FC Website: “Chelsea will once again play in the FA Cup Final after goals from Didier Drogba, Florent Malouda and Frank Lampard earned victory at Wembley against Aston Villa in Saturday’s semi-final.”
This preamble was written two hours before today’s match started. Also, most of this report, the final five sections apart, was written as the match unfolded, rather than afterwards (see my further comments on ‘history- writing’ below).
To start with, I am once more ambivalent about these FA Cup ties. If you offered me a defeat today against Villa, but a certain Premier League triumph next month, I’d snatch your hand off, as would every other supporter I know.
All the statements I have read from our camp, and from Villa’s, suggest that our 7-1 win against them two weeks ago will count for nothing today. That both sides are expecting a hard-fought, tough, close game. Aston Villa don’t look likely to get the fourth-place Champions League place (my money is on Manchester City) – which means the FA Cup is their last remaining hope for this season.
My worst fear is that we end up playing in an exhausting slog, going into extra-time, acquiring injuries and disciplinary cards on the way. We have Bolton at home just 75 hours after today’s match finishes. We really can’t afford a wrecking game today, while Villa probably can.
On that point JT did us no favours by saying that Villa were tiring in the last 30 minutes with O’Neill and three Villa players on record as saying they are going to prove him wrong.
And yet… there is a prospect of Chelsea doing the double for the first time in our history. In fact, Ladbrokes are quoting odds of just 15-8 on our achieving just that. Unthinkable a month ago.
The bottom line is I don’t want us to jeopardize our Premier League chances playing for what could just be a consolation prize. But joining the elite group of double-winners will see me grovelling around outside Carlo’s mansion, begging for forgiveness, and offering him the free use of my body in any way he sees fit. (N.B. Blog in-joke – original © JD)
Cech; Zhirkov, Terry, Alex, Ferreira; Cole, Mikel, Lampard, Deco, Malouda; Drogba.
Subs: Hilario, Ballack, Ivanovic, Kalou, Sturridge, Belletti, Anelka.
The only change was that Drogs comes in for Nic. Not sure why Carlo elected to change a winning side but I am relieved that he is given up the idea of playing the two together. Possibly he is thinking that Drogs’ style is better suited for a poorly-laid and draining Wembley pitch. My concern is that we have looked more likely to play a long-ball game with Drogs up front, and lot slower going forward.
Watching the players come out of the tunnel I was immediately struck by the expression of controlled ferocity on JT’s face and by a similar look in the eyes of Lamps, Joe Cole and Drogs. I have (occasionally) worked as a sports psychologist with athletes and boxers and one of my briefs has been to prepare the sportsman to switch off from internal mind and focus only on the will to win and external events. That is not easy to achieve but most of our players had it today.
One problem is that the Villa players – especially Petrov, Agbonlahor, Carew and Milner, have it too. Game on.
Note on ‘Commentators’
Readers should know that, when watching our matches on TV, I turn the sound off. Listening to pundits and commentators issuing banal comments on the obvious or the unknowable irritates me almost as much as listening to anti-Chelsea bias from the likes of Tyldesley, Steve Ryder or Andy Townsend. On the latter: I used to rate this glib, hair-gelled thicko, as a decent Chelsea player. But now that he has taken ITV gold, with instructions to disparage us at every opportunity, I don’t even want to have to look at it, let alone listen to it.
The unfortunate side-effect of this that I cannot tell how noisy our support is, or what witty taunts they are offering. Readers of this blog who were at the stadium today might want to comment on this.
2-0 to Chelsea. I can’t tell you what that prediction is based on – just second sight. My rational mind says 1-1 at full-time but the witch in me says otherwise. Because I am both superstitious and a Chelsea pessimist I tell no one about this and nor do I write it down. You will just have to take my word for it that this was the score I ‘saw’ before the match begins.
The game – first half
One of my favourite historians, A.J.P. Taylor, once said that the trouble with history is that it is usually written in hindsight, not while the events described were developing. This gives a false sense of necessity to history when, in fact, many outcomes could have gone either way at the time. The participants themselves work in hope, not certainty. For example, we can’t be sure that we will win the Premier League today. But there will be plenty of people ready to demonstrate how we were the inevitable champions if we do win it (just as there will be plenty of enemies ready to explain why we only won it due to the undeserved misfortunes of ‘better’ sides like Arsenal and Man Utd).
As an experiment, I am writing (most) of this report on the first-half at half-time, when the score was 0-0. Time will tell whether the way in which I viewed the first-half has any historical connection with the final score.
Generally, we were poor first-half. Villa played their familiar 4-5-1 with Milner their ‘steering wheel’, Young and Downing pushing up the wings, and Agbonlahor roving around behind Carew. For the first 30 minutes or so, Villa were in control while we struggled to put together any fluency or penetration. Lamps, so far, is back to being poor. Villa were tight on him but, even so, he keeps giving the ball away. Is that because the system with Nic up-front, and interchanging with Joe Cole and Malouda, gives Lamps more room for those late runs? While, with Drogs up front he stays back? And struggles to find Drogs/Cole/Florence with forward passes in a packed midfield?
Villa were getting forward far more often than us in the first half-hour and had a passable penalty shout on 15 minutes. The replay shows that Agbonlahor and John Obi are both pulling each others’ shirts and muscling each other off the ball before Agbonlahor falls to the ground. Since referees are now being taught to watch body-language and not to give penalties if the ‘victim’ twists on falling (as that indicates a conscious intention to simulate) Webb was right not to give it. But, surely, he should have booked Agbonlahor for diving?
Howard Webb used to be a good ref but I thought he had another poor game today. Villa set out to rough us up but John Obi, Deco, Lamps, JT, Alex, and Florence gave them something back with interest. Result? Deco, John Obi and JT are all booked, while Carew, Agbonlahor and Milner get off scot-free.
Note on Deco. He really has turned into a proper Premier League player. Last season he was too easily bullied out of the game. Now he has turned ‘bully’ himself and is almost as good as Ballack at menacing the opposition! Well done that man!
For neutrals the game will have been a bore. It really was like the 1943 tank battle of Kursk out there in the midfield, with our big guns matching theirs all the way. And a stalemate is the result.
I am seriously impressed by Alex and JT so far. They seem be blocking everything Carew (a very difficult, powerful, cunning opponent) and Agbonlahor (ditto) send over today.
In the final 15 minutes of the first half we start to look dangerous as the sleeping beast – Drogba – starts to wake up. He almost scores on 34 minutes but is blocked by Dunne, and then he sets up Joe Cole on 38, whose tricky shot is saved by Friedel.
The first half ends with Agbonlahor whingeing on to Howard Webb all the way back to the dressing room. Someone really needs to give him his dummy back.
The game – second half
The first 15 minutes looks similar to the first half: Villa largely in control, with our midfield struggling to impose their game. On 47 Carew’s header from Downing’s cross goes just wide.
In other reports I have mentioned my other witchcraft skills: one of which is that, most of the time, I can tell what the next score-line will be by squinting at the score-box at top-left of the screen. I feel sure that we will go 0-1 up, even though we look the poorer team overall so far. I also have a very similar feeling to the one I had when we beat Arsenal schoolboys 2-1 at Wembley in the Carling Cup a few years ago under Jose. Although Arsenal were in front for most of the game, I had the inevitable feeling that we were going to grind them down.
Aston Villa have hardly had a shot on target and, the longer that goes on, the more I feel sure we will sneak it. Just don’t want it to go to extra time though.
On 64 minutes Kalou comes on for Joe Cole. Joe hasn’t looked the handful he was against Man U but, I assume that Carlo has told him to play more defensively today. And, in the context of the clinical team performance so far, Joe has done ok. Yet, as soon as Salomon comes on we seem to look very fast and dangerous moving forward.
GOAL. 65 minutes. On the counter, John Obi puts Drogs through but his goal-bound shot is blocked by Dunne. Villa make a dog’s breakfast of Flo’s poor corner and the ball falls to JT. Did he mean to shoot or did he mean to pass it? It goes to the Drog’s Bollocks, who side-foots it into the net for his 32nd goal of the season so far.
A nice touch. Immediately after the score JT runs back without celebrating. I really like the fact that he is taking nothing for granted with 25 minutes still to play against determined opponents.
Now Villa start to look more frantic and push forward. But, in doing so, they are opening up space at the back for Flo, Kalou and Nic (on for Drogs on 80 minutes) to exploit.
We are playing the old-fashioned Italian catenaccio: keeping possession and, on losing the ball, closing them down and waiting for them to make mistakes. When the ball falls to Lamps, Deco (Ballack), or Florence we quickly move up. With Villa now playing 4-3-3 they look fragile.
88 minutes. Game over. Lamps sweeps upfield, passes to Der Kaiser on the right wing (!), whose hanging cross is volleyed in by Florence.
Add-on time. First a great effort by Kalou is kept out somehow by Brad Friedel, then Flo blazes over the rebound when he really should have scored. It’s starting to look like the build-up to the 7-1 all over again except that it’s taken a lot longer to grind Villa down today.
And – yes – JT has been proved right – Villa look very, very tired. They show all the signs of a very small squad on a tight budget, for whom the football season is approximately six weeks too long.
0-3. Shit. My 0-2 prediction has been overturned with only 30 seconds left on the clock.
But who cares? Lamps’ goal is another wonderful example of graft, trickery and clinical finishing. Nic and Flo run all round the Villa defence before Nic sets up Super Frank, who hammers it into the net on the run.
I am going to dispense with individual assessments. For me this was a clinical, well-organised – and sometimes brutal exercise in Jose-style attrition. In which each player contributed to the whole rather than seeking individual attention.
Man of the Match
I thought JT, Alex and John Obi were outstanding today and were the main reason why O’Neill’s tactics did not lead to clear-cut chances and goals.
I am going to give it to Alex though. For me, JT is already a legend, while John Obi has become a favourite for me. Good to see Alex proving himself in that company.
- We are in the FA Cup Final on May 15th for the second successive year.
- We won this game in normal time and I didn’t hear of any injuries.
- Carlo Ancelotti. Another demonstration of guile, well-rehearsed tactics, and clinical, attritional play.
- Ivanovic and Juliano Belletti both made a welcome return to the bench.
- Howard Webb. And he’s been nominated to be a World Cup referee in South Africa!
- ITV and Andy Townsend. A good friend of mine tells me that the thicko spent most of the half-time interval ‘explaining’ why Villa should have had a penalty while the rest of the ITV squad bleated on throughout the match about ‘lucky Chelsea’ and Aston Villa ‘deserving’ to go through.
The game against Bolton on Tuesday, as things stand, will be more significant than this result as far as I am concerned.
Yet the feeling is growing on me that Carlo has started to impose himself on the team and that we are now starting to look like the mean, nasty, win-merchants that we were three years ago. We ground down a very good side today, who desperately wanted to progress. If we carry on playing like this in all five games we have left in the Premier League, then we will win it for sure.