Football as a metaphor for life itself? The traditional Easter story tells us of death and resurrection; as the football season draws to a close those two qualities have been evident in all areas of the beautiful game. As the bouyant winning streak and title charge of our closest rivals went from threatening to lifeless in the space of ninety minutes, Accrington Stanley completed their rise from the dead and re-established themselves as a football league club rather than the tag line of a 1980’s milk advertising campaign.
It all started with a long, Good Friday that was supposed to see Mourinho and the Blues come under the kind of pressure experienced by Bob Hoskins’ crime lord in the film of the same name. Sinister whispers came from the boss of the Northern firm, designed to put the squeeze on the southerners; the gap will almost certainly be down to four points by the time you take to the field at Bolton the next day. Hope you’ve got the stomach for the fight. Any further slip-ups and we would surely be hanging upside down in Ferguson’s own personal abattoir next to the other carcasses he has delighted in disemboweling over the last decade or so.
As well as holding the belief that the game was as good as being three points in the bag, the Scot had also earmarked the home fixture against Sunderland as a good opportunity for Rooney and co. to rack up a cricket score that would reduce Chelsea’s superior goal difference as well as the gap at the top of the table. Arsenal’s makeshift but impressively watertight defence had failed to keep a clean sheet at Old Trafford, but the chances of this season’s Premiership whipping boys doing so were reflected in the vast odds available on the unlikely outcomes other than an emphatic United win.
But as the time of year dictates, miracles do sometimes happen. Kevin Ball’s men deviated from the script and played their best game of the season, with an inspired Kelvin Davis performance reminding Ferguson and the United faithful that you don’t crucify people, not on Good Friday.
The ninety minute goal famine bizarrely left the Sunderland fans celebrating a result that condemned them to Championship football next season as the Theatre of (broken) Dreams emptied; another campaign with no Premiership title for the franchise. Despite the date, the only thing that could be described as hot and cross was Fergie himself after what has to be one of the most improbable scoreless draws in football history.
The following lunchtime, Jose and his intrepid band made their way out onto the pitch at Bolton’s Reebok stadium. For those without a copy of Fergie’s Premiership atlas, Bolton is in the mythical North-West, land of tough, footballing beasties, swirling winds, driving rain and the graveyard of soft southern teams like Chelsea who don’t like it up ‘em. And more specifically the home of his old pal, Sam Allardyce who apparently would like nothing more than to do his old pal a favour or two.
Bolton had lost four games in succession prior to the visit of the Blues and have been in largely indifferent form since their recent exit from the UEFA Cup. But as has been proven on more than one occasion this season, the best way to bring a halt to such a slide in form is to welcome the champions. Allardyce’s team did what they do best in the opening exchanges; they hassled and frustrated, preventing Chelsea from finding the kind of rhythm and fluency that had finally returned against West Ham.
It took a few nervous moments before Chelsea finally kicked into gear. Nolan went close inside the first fifteen minutes before Ricardo Vaz Te seized upon an uncharacteristic error by William Gallas and scuffed a shot past Petr Cech; the ball bounced agonisingly back off the post which went some way to summing up Bolton’s luck in recent weeks.
Seconds before a half time break with a goalless scoreline that would arguably have left Mourinho the happier of the two managers, the Blues finally found the target with a Terry / Drogba (officially Terry) header from Lampard’s ‘undefendable’ free kick. Bolton failed to rouse themselves after the break and Lampard sealed the win just before the hour; he received a perfectly weighted Crespo pass as the culmination of a move he had initiated and finished superbly past Jaaskelainen. His celebration recalled the goal that sealed the title up at the Reebok last April and after a number of largely indifferent games by his own high standards, Lampard’s performance finally went some way to reminding us of the midfield general that had dictated the pace of the Premier League for the almost a season and a half.
After Sunderland’s heroics and victory at Bolton, the anticipation of a title winning party at the Bridge on Monday afternoon was dampened by United’s win at White Hart Lane – incontrovertible proof of one of football’s oldest proverbs; you can never, ever rely on Tottenham.
Despite the slightly subdued atmosphere, after a sluggish start the Blues put in an excellent performance against Everton to remind Ferguson’s men that they are visiting one of the toughest home grounds in European football in just under two weeks’ time. The newly rejuvenated Drogba, clearly enjoying some company on the front line in the form of Crespo, put in another man-of-the-match performance which helped to seal our seventeenth home league win of the campaign.
The Ivorian sealed a superb performance with a bullet header from Lampard’s corner for Chelsea’s second, having previously set up the first by robbing Tim Cahill on the halfway line to feed Lampard for his twentieth goal of the season. The lack of any dramatic overreaction to Carsley’s red carded tackle (more clumsy than malicious) will have disappointed those who have appointed Drogba as Premiership Villain of the Season; his improving form and prodigious work rate continue to win over his doubters down at the Bridge. The Liverpool back line will approach next Saturday’s semi-final at Old Trafford with some trepidation if Didier is at his best.
Another player burdened with a hefty price tag and the weight of expectation, Michael Essien, capped a fine performance in midfield with a thunderous third goal after Osman’s questionable back-pass to Richard Wright. David Moyes asked many questions of the referee following Robben’s late arrival for the second half and the red card but he didn’t deny that Chelsea had made far more enquiries of his team, most of which went unanswered. The only concern for the Blues was the injury to Petr Cech following his collision with Gallas; Cudicini got a welcome run out ahead of next week’s encounter with Liverpool in which he would have surely started irrespective of Cech’s condition.
Nine points clear, three games left, one point required, United at the Bridge next – arguably the prefect scenario in which to clinch the title. That we are in this position now is testament to our own reaction to the relative slump in form which has been both extremely effective and brilliant in its simplicity. West Ham, Bolton and Everton all dispatched within nine days, nine goals scored and nine points taken – any suggestion of an emergency in SW6 was clearly nothing more than a hoax call. Mourinho’s personal response to the pressure from his Old Trafford counterpart has been deadpan and witheringly dismissive; pressure, according to the Special One, is dead swans and not winning a title for three years when you are supposedly the best in the business, but full marks for remaining in a state of permanent optimism. Touché indeed.
Fergie’s recent Mystic Meg impersonations have been questionable to say the least; having gazed into his crystal ball and predicted a tough game for Chelsea against Bolton in stormy weather and the possibility of the Blues wilting in the cauldron of emotion that would be St. James’ Park for Alan Shearer’s final appearance in a Newcastle shirt, one can only imagine that Arsene Wenger is praying that his old adversary doesn’t take the unlikely step of tipping Arsenal to win the Champions League.
We approach the closing stages of the season in a position previously unheard of in Chelsea’s history; a whisker away from back-to-back league titles and potentially two FA Cup games from membership of the elite double winners club. For a team that might have slipped into bankruptcy and possibly Accrington Stanley-style limbo less than five years ago, you’ll forgive us if we milk the moment for a little while longer.
Manchester United, who are they? Exactly.