Sunday Times, John Aizlewood: “How to enable Chelsea’s Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba to effectively combine their myriad gifts was a riddle that both Avram Grant and Luiz Felipe Scolari failed to solve and one that contributed to the demise of both. Now, Guus Hiddink might have just cracked it.”
The Observer, Amy Lawrence: “Drogba was at his terrifying best, Anelka had one of his classiest displays for Chelsea and Malouda showed exactly why he was brought to London at great expense two years ago. The three of them looked hungry and sharp. Their combination play and clinical finishing was so stylish even Barça loyalists would be forced to admit it was easy on the eye.”
Sunday Telegraph, Oliver Brown: “The stakes were not as high as Chelsea would have wished. But still Hiddink fielded a remarkablly strong line-up, such linchpins as John Terry, Frank Lampard and Michael Essien all present and correct amid the manager’s anxieties about holding on to third place in the Premier League. It was an audacious gesture, only four days before a decisive Champions League confrontation with Barcelona, where Hiddink promised to “take more initiative.””
Independent on Sunday, Mark Fleming: “Guus Hiddink’s side have been castigated for their stonewall defence in the 0-0 draw in the first leg of the Champions League semi-final in the Nou Camp on Tuesday night. But given licence to spread their wings against neighbours Fulham, Chelsea at times were a joy to witness.”
Official Chelsea FC Website, Andy Jones: “It was no less than the Blues deserved, the better side for almost the entire 90 minutes as Anelka in particular ran the normally sturdy Fulham defence ragged.”
A second consecutive beautiful sunny day in London and the finale to my own couple of days in the busy capital of this green and pleasant land saw the Tony trusty steed tied up outside Stamford Bridge with a trough of cold clear water and a fresh bale of hay to munch on. Having lived in London for the first 26 years of my life and been only too happy to depart the hustle and bustle for the calm and peace of rural village existence my visits can genuinely now be savoured with a mixture of fond nostalgia and new found wide eyed wonderment at the myriad of changes the city has undergone.
Plus it was a suitable and timely reminder of just how London Transport can distort time with greater ease and power than Doctor Who himself. Seriously folks, only they have the power to fully redefine the minute from the globally accepted standard 60 seconds to anything between 90 seconds and two minutes. If you don’t believe me then take the simple test of standing on a Tube station platform… any one you like it doesn’t matter… and then time just how long it is until the actual next train arrives against the LED arrivals notice-board.
I digress… before riding into the sunset with haunting mouth organ music playing in the background, hat tilted lazily forward and a grateful frontier town waving me goodbye… I had to attend the hotly contested local rivalry of Chelsea and their local rivals Fulham. Of course we all know that the rivalry and enmity between the two teams had always been rather pallid and low key on account of Fulham generally playing in the lower divisions for many years and being over-shadowed by our rivalry with the both versions of Leeds United, the original one now found languishing in a league probably sponsored by some building supplies company, and New Leeds based in Anfield and playing in all red. But local derby it is and therefore I shall accord it the respect it deserves… or doesn’t. Oh… who really cares… it’s only Fulham… or North Putney as I like to call them.
The main course
The first thing to note about the match was the extraordinary achievement of our iconic and inspirational captain, John Terry, who was playing in his 400th game for Chelsea, ranking him 11th in the all time appearances league. Marvellous stuff and I am in no doubt he’ll play many more games for us and only us.
The team announcement was surprising in that Guus Hiddink chose not to rest any of the top players really. Everyone who played against Barcelona was either on the pitch or on the bench. He’s nothing if not brave.
The game started amidst some fearsome chanting from the plucky but misguided Fulham fans (misguided for picking the wrong team in Fulham to support) but they went remarkably silent when with just 50 seconds on the clock, with the usual sight of Stamford Bridge filling up to the latecomers, Nicolas Anelka, Florent Malouda and Didier Drogba carved Fulham open to get us a quick and surprising 1-0 lead. Watching the replays it was a move of stunning and simplistic beauty.
But North Putney weren’t here to just make up the numbers and within three minutes the deficit was cancelled out when Erik Nevland sprung the offside trap to run through and beat Petr Cech with worrisome ease, in the process re-affirming many fears about the consistency and reliability of our number one goalkeeper. With the benefit of replays on Sky’s Game of the Day, only one conclusion can be drawn, and it is that Cech could and should have done better. However remembering how many times we’ve scored similar goals it is worth noting that it just proves that testing the goalkeeper with a decent shot rather than trying to walk the ball into the net can often pay surprising dividends.
Game on then, and both teams seemed to settle into a pattern of passing and moving, both possibly a bit jittery by having conceded and scored so early. The North Putney fans chanted away and got some suitably noisy responses from Chelsea fans, and after 10 minutes, the now fully functioning triumvirate of Malouda, Anelka and Drogba carved Fulham open again and Malouda… sorry… now officially called The Much Improved Malouda slotted home our second. It was marvellous and very promising stuff, which no doubt Barcelona spies will have duly noted. The rest of the half consisted of both teams huffing and puffing with both looking confident going forward and jittery at the back. Fulham came close through a good combination of Dempsey and Nevland again, and Drogba was flagged offside when scoring a goal that on replays was shown to have been perfectly onside. The rest of the half did seem to have that ‘end of season’ feeling rather than the passion and edge of a local derby. The only major note for alarm from Chelsea’s perspective was the alarming apathy and sloppiness from three players in particular. Michael Essien was poor, poor and thrice poor, giving away possession and unable to hold the ball in anything remotely resembling the normal Essien intransigence. Alex was a shadow of the player we’ve seen recently, playing negatively and looking very unsure and Frank Lampard was, to be honest, having a shocker by his normal standards. I’ll put their performances down to fatigue this time, and will err on each merely suffering a blip in form. Hiddink did exactly as expected and substituted two of those at half time, and I doubt many were shocked to see Alex and Essien be replaced by Branislav ‘Branners’ Ivanovic and Michael Ballack for the resumption of hostilities.
The substitutions made a world of difference. Ballack immediately bought several thousand Chelsea Pitch Owners shares as he bossed the midfield. Some people think he’s not been the player from last season but I believe he’s slipped into a deeper midfield general role, and unquestionably our midfield looks more solid with him in it than without. Where Essien seemed unsure about bombing forward or treading on Obi’s toes, Ballack merely unfussily and imperiously took control. It was a joy to watch. Ivanovic stepped into the Alex role and within minutes had made a timely intervention to prevent an almost certain goal from Kamara after Zamora had left John Terry for dead. After that, despite one rather badly misplaced back pass which North Putney failed to capitalise on, ‘Branners’ as he is affectionately known in my neck of The Bridge was utterly superb. Goodbye Riccy is all I can say. The next moment of note was superbly worked third goal for us, with Anelka playing Drogba in for a world class finish, in a lightning fast counter-attack that left North Putney reeling. From that point on, it was almost total control from the Chelsea players. There were one or two more half chances from North Putney, and a few more chances for us, with Lampard coming close from a free kick well saved by Schwarzer, Anelka heading just wide and a decent but wide long rage strike from Mikel Obi.
As the game petered out and the sun shone down, our thoughts could turn to Wednesday’s titanic clash with Barcelona. The final whistle went and we streamed away dumb, fat and happy.
The dessert trolley
Or, the bits that are good enough to lick as I like to think of them. Great performances across the team today bar the three I mentioned earlier. Cech looked a bit better in the air today although his reliance on the upfield hoof of the ball still seemed prevalent today, but in truth, other than the goal he wasn’t called into any really serious action. Ashley Cole linked well with Malouda and that is a relationship that seems to be growing into something fruitful. Mikel Obi, after a few indifferent performances was back to his disruptive best today and looked good on the ball. Ballack was superb as was Branners but the headlines should really all be about Drogba, Anelka and Malouda. Whether this hybrid 4-3-3/4-4-2 tactic would work against top opposition is a moot point, but I would say it was worth a go.
- Petr Cech – 7/10 – Could have done better for the goal but rarely called into serious action.
- Jose Boswingwa – 7/10 – Feeling his way back in, but a superb ball stopper and always looked a threat.
- John Terry – 8/10 – Left for dead by Zamora, but still inspirational and worthy of his 400 match milestone.
- Alex – 5/10 – Looked out of sorts. Like one of those days where everything you do seems slightly out of phase with what’s going on around you.
- Ashley Cole – 7.5/10 – Linking nicely with Malouda but went missing from time to time at left-back.
- John Mikel Obi – 7.5/10 – Back to his early season best today.
- Michael Essien – 5/10 – After ‘owning’ Stevie Me at Anfield has gone worryingly off the boil. Is the real Essien on a beach somewhere to be replaced by a Stepford clone?
- Frank Lampard – 6/10 – First half shocker including a truly dreadful free kick into row Z of The Shed. Improved when Ballack turned up but still a little off beam in all aspects.
- Florent Malouda – 8.5/10 – Much, much and greatly improved. If he’d played like this all season then I would be happy for him to stay. As Attillio, my Matthew Harding Upper seat neighbour said, ‘It just goes to show what a good coach can do for a player’. Bang on the money there Attillio.
- Nicolas Anelka – 9/10 – World class today. Defended when required, played a key part in all three goals, linked well with Drogba sitting just behind him and at the side. Magnificent – which begs the questions why we don’t see more of this. Spun players time and again, held the ball wonderfully and well… just superb.
- Didier Drogba – 8.5/10 – Superbly taken goal(s) and seems to have worked out how to link with Anelka. Unfortunately showed some sign of the petulance and drama queen nature of his personality.
- Branislav Ivanovic (sub for Alex) – 8/10 – A great score for a great performance covering just the second half.
- Michael Ballack (sub for Essien) – 8.5/10 – Took ownership of the midfield and was faultless in every detail.
- Franco Di Santo (sub for Drogba) – 6/10 – My jury is well and truly still out on this guy.
- Overall team performance – 8.5/10 – End of season-ish, in anticipation of a much bigger match on Wednesday, but still a decent show.
Man of the Match
To be honest it could have been any from Obi, Malouda, Anelka, Drogba (despite a few of his shenanigans), Ivanovic, Ballack or Ashley Cole. Every one of those players had an outstanding game. The true winner though is an enigmatic Frenchman who when Drogba was injured seemed like a striker reborn. He’s gone a little off the boil recently although for ball skill and vision he has, for me, always been a class act.
Step forward Nicolas Anelka and accept this fine virtual bouquet for what was a truly world class performance.
The brandy and Cuban cigars
North Putney came, saw and sort of crept away with their tails between their legs. We’ve had a so-so time against them of late and so it is nice to finish the season with local bragging rights until next season. This was a fairly routine win in the end, against a fairly reasonable team who to their credit didn’t come to park the bus. I think Roy Hodgson is a good coach who has fashioned North Putney into a decent mid-table team. They should be happy with that. In the end our class all over the pitch showed, and Guus once again showed that he generally makes the right decisions on tactics and substitutions.
Our thoughts can now turn to Wednesday night and a big big game against Barcelona. Any hope that they might have a tough away game in the Bernabeu against Real Madrid in ‘El Classico’ were dashed as they utterly destroyed them 6-2. One good thing about that is that it puts New Leeds’ Champions League despatch of Real Madrid into perspective. As Danny Baker said at the time, beating Real Madrid now is very different to beating them in their 60s heyday. In fact as Baker also said, it’s like meeting Elvis Presley in his overweight Vegas days… yes, it’s still Elvis, but a bloated overweight, sluggish shadow of the young Elvis.
It’s a timely warning that Barcelona are both the favourites and the media darlings for good reason. They do play flowing attacking football, but we have party pooped many of these teams before and I’m sure Guus will be planning some spoiling tactics for Wednesday, and that our boys are eager to show the preening primadonna diving and play acting tarts of Barcelona and their blinkered ‘attack is the only way’ fans just what they can do.
If we do lose then I for one, will probably be happy to support them in the final. It will be no disgrace to lose to Barcelona at the semi-final stage after the early season of turmoil and inconsistency under Scolari. Despite this resurgence under Hiddink, I still agree that we need to refresh the squad and the new man will need to ensure he gets all the intelligence he can so as to choose the right ones to keep and the right ones to go. Isn’t it odd that last season I said break the bank to keep Riccy Carvalho, but am now sitting here thinking we should let him go and get what we can?
But then again, like many of you, I am the archetypal, stereotypical, bipolar Chelsea fan.
I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Keep the Blue Flag Flying High!