Chelsea, as most pundits predicted, lost to Barcelona in the last sixteen of the Champions League. But as is anything involving Chelsea and Barcelona these days, it was not short of drama. Yet, when all the smoke cleared, Barcelona have their vengeance and, as Mourinho said, we all are now reduced to watching the Champions League on television, just like Barcelona did last season.
Now, there are those who probably see this as some form of poetic justice after last year’s controversial header by John Terry that saw us get into the quarter-final at their expense. After all, how else can you explain the fact that it was Terry’s headed own-goal that opened the way for Barcelona’s win at Stamford Bridge, when even with ten men, we had actually gone ahead? But of course, there is much more to it than that. While it was clear that we had their measure at the Bridge before Terje Hauge, the Norwegian referee decided to send off Asier Del Horno for a challenge that deserved no more than a yellow, Barcelona played the more attractive football and, on balance, deserved the win. We cannot blame them for whatever the referee has done; they just took advantage of it, like any ambitious team would do.
After that though, I still felt we could go to Camp Nou, turn them over and get the result; not because I was confident we were going to play the sexier football, but I was rather banking on the English grit that is the spine of our team. When we have our back against the wall, as we did last season at the same stage of the competition against the same team, we produced the goods. In fact, it took only another English team to controversially knock us out and that team went on to lift the trophy coming from three nil down, and they were thirty-seven points behind us in the league! Again, a few days ago, Arsenal, another English team whose powers have waned dramatically at home (not least because of Chelsea’s dominance), trudged over to the Santiago Bernabéu and walked away with a clean sheet, a win and a lot of swagger. They did this in spite of Real Madrid’s embarrassment of riches in attack and with three of the regular Arsenal back four sidelined by injuries. So, I was getting confident that the English character was now beginning to have the Indian sign over the Spanish character in these situations.
Yet, after all the diversions of the Barcelona hate-mob, when hostilities really resumed on the pitch, we didn’t turn up. We played from the beginning as though we were the ones who needed just a draw to go through. Mourinho’s initial line-up and formation was adventurous as it was interesting. It was perfectly legitimate and indeed sensible to try new things when you’re chasing a game; but he wasn’t going to go on to the pitch and do it himself! Drogba’s lethargy, Carvalho’s panicky defending, Makelele’s near-anonymity, Duff’s spinelessness, Cole’s self-indulgence, Robben’s sightless runs, Lampard’s ordinariness and so on all showed we were the second best team on the night. Of course, Mourinho is a coach and he has reasons to say the better team lost and that the game was already decided by the Stamford Bridge sending off of Del Horno, but I’ll have to disagree with him. The truth is that on the night, Barcelona matched our physicality without compromising their usual stranglehold on possession or their creativity. The fact that Ronaldinho’s goal was all physical, rather than the usual skillful stuff says it all. Our equalizing goal, the penalty, was dubious, to say the least.
Of course, I’m not criticizing Mourinho and the team; I’m just stating how I see it over both legs and I’m doing so only for us to learn the lessons and move on. Mourinho has a point when he says Barcelona have never defeated us with eleven men on the pitch, but it is not something you want to trumpet loudly, otherwise the neutrals begin to interpret such as the whimpers of a sore loser, rather than a dutiful compliment for his players – an indirect way of telling them that despite the outcome, they need not feel inferior to any team. It is good that Mourinho concedes that the team that goes through deserves it and that in this case, it’s Barcelona. Well, that is as close Mourinho would come to complimenting Barca; so they better take it and run!
Seriously, if the truth must be told, we’ve come a long way as a football club over a very short period of time. For the second year running, we’re going to win the league by a mile. And this season still threatens to better last season if we can add the FA Cup. Already, friends and foes alike have conceded that we are and will remain the dominant force in English football for sometime, based on the work Mourinho, the players and the staff are doing. Today, we’re being mentioned in the same breath as the European football powerhouses, not because we have money to burn, but by virtue of what the boys are achieving on the field. In fact, at the beginning of the season, the unofficial title of the best team in Europe was being contested by three teams – Barcelona, Chelsea and Juventus. Barcelona’s defeat of Chelsea means we’re out of the running; but it’s good for us to realize how far we’ve come and to appreciate the fact that ill luck has played its part in our ‘travails’ this season.
The summer’s most talked about and indeed costliest transfer was that of Michael Essien from Lyon to Chelsea. We acquired Essien specifically for this kind of encounter. Yet when he was most needed, he was cooling his heels on the sidelines, not through injury, but because of a UEFA ban over the two legs. The mobility and balance of our team depends hugely on our natural left-backs, but without Del Horno, Wayne Bridge his natural replacement was out on the treatment table. William Gallas, who would always put up a fine display anywhere on the backline, was not there in the first leg and in the second, while it was obvious he had the pace to handle Messi, he lacked the left leg to whip the crosses in when it mattered. Besides, chasing a game where you need to score two clear goals to be in contention was always going to be difficult. Mourinho is a great motivator, but those boys on the pitch on Tuesday night didn’t look like people who’d suffered two consecutive Champions League heartaches while losing in the semi-final two years in a row before now. They didn’t look like they knew history was beckoning them to tame the dancing matadors and that they really had a chance to do it if only they hadn’t fallen for the intimidation of a large stadium and a baying full-house mob.
So, let’s go on and claim what remains of our glory for the rest of the season. I personally don’t want to swap places with any other fan in the world. I believe in the Chelsea vision and mission and I believe that the holy grail of European football will be attained sooner, rather than later. The reaction of our fans to all the frothy negativity being bandied around about our club, our manager and players in the last few weeks convinces me that we are now becoming wiser to the game – which is that you stick to your own through thick and thin and don’t beg for love. I believe it’s a great compliment that people are having the kind of expectations they now have of us on the biggest European stage when this is just our fourth attempt in our history. Of course, we have to live with the Scousers baiting us with their five European Cup triumphs; but what would you do if you were Barca playing in the same league with the nine-times winning Real Madrid? For all their history and flair, Barcelona have only won the Cup once, a record no better than Aston Villa’s!
We can trust Mourinho to look hard at this team and begin to make the necessary provisions for the summer. Our attack is actually the problem. In Drogba and Crespo, we have two fine strikers who, on their day will match the best anywhere; but we need a consistent goal scorer. We need a striker with flair and panache; someone who’s always hungry, always scoring and always prepared to receive the ball and create something out of nothing. That was the difference between Eto’o and Drogba on the night. One looked sluggish and uninspiring; the other mobile, eager and creative. Yes, Drogba is a great battering ram when he’s in the mood, but an inconsistent performer and of late has become somewhat unreliable when it matters most. Crespo, of course, is not the force he used to be and to be fair, he isn’t the type that can effectively play upfront alone as Mourinho normally prefers. In any case, he’s coming to the end of his career, so we really should be looking elsewhere. Mourinho should look at how to create the kind of attack that would be the envy of others – just like Barcelona! Yes, they are the standard-bearers now and we shouldn’t be afraid or ashamed to copy and better ourselves. We have the resources, so let’s just do it.
But while I look forward to an interesting summer of shopping at Stamford Bridge, I think our foray into the transfer market this time should be more strategic. No matter what has happened, we don’t want to break the team spirit that is the hallmark of this Chelsea team. Just one or two more real quality additions upfront will be fine.
And the King is dead…
About a week ago, we lost the man I consider the greatest Chelsea player ever. The magic of Peter Osgood lured me to Chelsea in my tender years and I’ve remained Blue ever since. I couldn’t bring myself to read the tributes or look at his all-over-the-place pictures. My grief was just too much for me to bear. But I prayed silently for release; I prayed that a turnaround in Barcelona would be a perfect way for me to explode and shed my tears of joyful sorrow for Peter the Great. It was not to be. Losing Osgood so suddenly and that ‘young’ wasn’t on the cards for me. I’m still terribly hurting and the restless tears are burning my insides. We’ll have to wait and see what form of tribute the club have in mind for him; but I’m sure they know that for a lot of us, he’s the embodiment of what our club should be, on and off the pitch – a stylish cut above the rest.
Adieu, King of the Bridge.