Memory’s a funny thing. They say the human mind has a penchant for forgoing a well-rounded perspective in favour of that which occurs most recently. One of the many reasons why the bad is never forgotten and the good is faintly remembered. Sometimes one needs a bit of a perspectival reset.
While I am in agreement that something at the club is indeed broken – the thick aura that plagued its inner workings has not been, as I had proclaimed before, eviscerated – because of hierarchical decisions stemming from the Manichean thinking demanded by our oligarch, veteran fans completing nearly half a century of uncompromising support are quick to remind me that there have been darker days at Chelsea Football Club. And there have indeed been worse situations than standing third in the table, seven points off the top with a Club World Cup – a competition revered by South American teams – to look forward to.
If someone had told you in February that we would win the Champions League at the cost of not qualifying from the group stages the following season, would you take such proposition? Of course you would. Anything for that night in Munich. Half a season in the Europa League is worth the triumph, especially because, given the fateful nature of European draws, Chelsea will undoubtedly have an opportunity to build upon relegating Tottenham to the second tier by knocking them out of it.
But had you been told that the ecstasy of Drogba’s last kick of a ball in Chelsea shirt would also mean Rafael Benitez ending up at the helm before Christmas, perhaps the pause before the answer would be far longer. Regarding the corpulent one, it would be in our favour to view his motivation and vantage point. Here is a man who is by no means of the same ilk as Avram Grant or Luiz Felipe Scolari. He understands English football, he understands European competition, and despite what many might think, he understands his old foe. We were effectively Benitez’s raison d’être for his entire tenure at Liverpool.
Two years out of work, it is in his very best interest to reaffirm his status as that fat, goatee-rubbing, tactically astute bastard who stifles the strongest of opposition. If he can lay the groundwork for whoever Abramovich chooses to lead the team successfully next season, he might leave to a reluctant round of applause by the fans and his reputation reset. I dread to think of the other side of the coin: Rafa failing abjectly and Chelsea pioneering a three-manager season.
The key difference between prior sackings and interim managers, however, has been the autopilot switch. When new managers with quack ideas threatened the success of the team, new faces usually hit the reset button, bringing in the uncompromising Mourinho-style back to the fore. Avram never really changed much, Hiddink got the boys playing the only way they knew how and Robbie re-empowered the players Jose made. Everything was reset to stem the tide of failure. There is no longer an autopilot switch – which makes Benitez’s job that much more difficult.
Of Jose’s loyalists, Benitez’s confirmation in one of his first press conferences that Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole will depart the club at season’s end must surely be of major concern. Rumours abound that Lampard might, in fact, sign a new deal, but that is yet to be seen. Forget his qualities as a left full-back, who can let go of a serial-goal-line-clearance specialist like Ashley? The club’s utmost priority must to be to keep these two at the club at whatever cost.
In all this back-room malaise, we have all taken for granted that Eva Carneiro is still with us. The club’s decision to promote her to chief physio has inspired imitators. AC Milan has hired its very own Eva. If the club has paved the way for greater female leadership roles in the back-room staff of European teams, that would incrementally help mitigate the tarnished image Roman, Bruce and Eugene have cultivated. Not that anyone would notice. And having a club owned by the womanizing Silvio following suit is perhaps not the ideal imitator one could hope for.
Onto Sunderland. Away fixtures evoke a considerable degree of trepidation this season. We haven’t travelled particularly well. That’s being nice. We’ve virtually forfeited matches at times. Martin O’Neill has had Chelsea’s number on some occasions in the past and Sunderland’s 0-3 win under Steve Bruce at Stamford Bridge is a fixture etched into memory. Having said that, a Chelsea loss has not taken place at the Stadium of Light in 12 years. But given the streaks we’re breaking for all the wrong reasons thus far, it would be impossible to determine what performance awaited, regardless of any confidence that could’ve arisen from smashing one of the worst sides in Champions League history in midweek.
Defensive Quartet: A back-four of Ivanovic, Cahill, Luiz and Cole is increasingly becoming our best option with Terry sidelined. While Ivanovic might be better used in the center of defense, Azipilcueta, a prototypical attack-minded wing-back, should be used sparingly until all defensive cleavages are addressed and rectified.
Midfield Duopoly: Little choice besides Ramires and Romeu. The club’s regret of its decision to indict Clattenburg has landed Mikel a substantial ban. The contract extension might very well be an apology as well as a reward for his marvellous role. But exactly what substance is being abused around the table which decisions are made?
Triumvirate: Victor Moses has earned himself a starting place ahead of Oscar – an impressive feat. He deserves it fully and looks more and more like the perfect upgrade to Monsieur Kalou. Slotting anywhere in the attacking third, his decision making is clear cut and, like good old Salomon, he will bag quite a few important goals.
Lone Wolf: The man who is due a Premier League goal. With Benitez in charge, the man also has nowhere left to hide.
A bright start with the team looking thoroughly organized. The holding midfielders were not straying too far ahead, Mata was placed in a gravitational role around which players orbited seamlessly and the defensive line kept its shape.
Chelsea’s playmaker extraordinaire, perhaps one of the world’s best in the “quarterback” role, started proceedings with advanced heart surgery, unleashing a majestic pass through the aorta of the defensive. Eden Hazard, who will never receive a penalty again during his life in England it seems, was tugged back illegally as he controlled and cut inside perfectly. His smiles will turn into frustration – and bookings – sooner or later.
The goal on 12 minutes was a masterpiece in counter-attacking play. With the ball won by Mata near the touchline, it drifted into Romeu’s path, and despite looking seemingly surrounded by red and white shirts, the young Barcelona product slipped a cute pass through to Torres, who managed to use his strength and wit to leave his compatriot Cuellar dead in the centre of the park. Moses, using his natural energy and power drove through the middle and released Hazard. With far too much time afforded to the winger – not that I’m complaining – his return to industrious form was crystallized by a cross of absolutely perfect height into the path of a striker who, somehow, just somehow, had managed to time his run to perfection for the first time in ages.
An early lead. But we’ve been here before haven’t we? A Torres-inspired – and finished – goal to give us a supposedly vital lead away from home in a crucial fixture. In fact, we were just here last week. Optimism reserved, my expectations remained conformed to the brutality of current realities.
Oscar soon replaced an injured Romeu, a decision which raised an eyebrow. Surely Lampard would have been a more fitting substitution to fill a holding role, but obviously Oscar has displayed enough bite in training, and on match days, to warrant a deep-lying role.
While the length of its veracity remains unknown, the now-customary 16th minute chant for Di Matteo should not be interpret as a purveyor of instability, but rather as a defining statement for the powerful nature of Chelsea’s support. Much maligned for a variety of unfounded reasons, Chelsea fans are actually proving the doubters wrong with the passionate consistency of support. With constant upheaval, we have learned to dissect that which needs to be supported and remembered most, and have acted accordingly.
Sunderland retaliated, and we allowed them to do so to some degree by giving away unnecessary fouls and scuffing clearances. Poignantly, we absorbed the pressure astonishingly well and dealt with every ball that came to the box. David Luiz taking up an unfamiliar role of remaining discipline, which in turn revealed the titanic nature of his play. With the right guidance, he is capable of not mucking it up. Is Benitez to be credited with reigning in the erratic defender?
Then the unthinkable transpired: Chelsea were awarded a stonewall penalty away from home. And then, the unthinkable continued: Fernando Torres overruled David Luiz to take the kick. His first attempt at a competitive penalty in England. Despite being assured by his insistence and David Luiz’s lack of protestation, the thought of him pulling a Sergio Ramos and leaving a dent in the International Space Station was too vicious to bare.
But the contours of his face exhibited a blazing confidence I have not seen from the oft-sullen striker. The eyes revealed a steely fury as if to say: “I will not fail.” And just like that, it was Fernando Torres two, Sunderland nil. His celebration was not one of smiles, but again, one of fury. Perhaps he realizes with Benitez in charge he actually has nowhere to hide. But is this one of his short spurts of form before the inevitable relapse into logic-defying mediocrity or is Benitez proving to be the Torres-whisperer he is hyped to be? Four goals in two matches, albeit against rather underwhelming opposition, for a striker who risks having his legacy laid to waste. Has he set the reset button? Optimism reserved, let’s not get our hopes up.
Simple play found Moses on the right who crossed well, finding a Sunderland defender in suicidal state of mind. The ball dropped to Torres, who, brimming with an unbridled confidence struck first time only for the crossbar to deny him his second hat-trick for Chelsea. Mata, of course, was having none of it and finished ruthlessly. It has been sometime since I can remember being three goals to the good away from home in the league. Were we actually playing well or was it a case of Sunderland’s flaws coming to bear? Chelsea were organized, lethal and shared an understanding from all corners of the pitch. We forced errors and exposed Sunderland. It was our day.
The decision to bring on Oscar over Lampard was justified as he showed his ability to play in deeper roles, getting stuck in when need be. This boy will have it all in a few seasons. Deep when the defensive alarms rang and in the attacking third on the break, Oscar’s mobility and fight allowed him to run the midfield alongside Ramires. Mata continued to dictate affairs because of the young Brazilian’s workrate.
Adam Johnson, a player who coulda, woulda, shoulda been a Chelsea player before losing out to City, scored one of the strikes of the season, leaving Cech flat-footed. Swerving outside and in, Sunderland deserved at least a goal for their pressure. Two free-kicks saw Cech in top form, saving one acrobatically and tipping the other to the crossbar. It could’ve so easily been 3-3 were it not for him.
Benitez’s decision to bring on Bertrand rather early to shore up the midfield signified his sense of preservation. He pinpointed that players have been overused and fatigue was already rearing its head. With two 12-hour flights and matches to be played in Japan, this squad, once considered sufficiently deep enough, needs to be rotated wisely to ensure that the likes of Hazard and Mata continued to dominate defenses. Mata was run into the ground last season and that cannot happen again.
The highlight of the entire match was seeing Frank Lampard stride out onto the pitch. Oh how we’ve missed you Franky. Taking up his trademarked left-of-centre midfield position, to see the familiar technique of a Super Frank strike that tested Mignolet was heartwarming. How can he ever leave the club? His return will, and probably already has, transformed our fortunes.
We conceded only once, and that to a moment of magic, and displayed a ruthless efficiency throughout the pitch. Is the end of the bad memory that was November? Has it all been reset for the good?
Japan, and the first trophy of the season, awaits. Continue in this vein – organized, efficient, mindful with a sense of urgency – and we will be Club World Champions. Robbie deserved to at least lead the team to a competition in which he effectively ensured our role as contestants.
Benitez, with a right old smile from his first win in English football in about four years said it best in the post-match presser: “The fans have to be behind the team, behind the club, and today we had a lot of fans and when you go so far away [for the Club World Cup], it’s important to win for them too.” Call him what you want, at least he is not deluded of his reputation, role and expectation as the most loathed interim manager in the history of the modern game.
Has the reset begun?
- Petr Cech: 9.5 – He kept it at 1-3.
- Ashley Cole: 7 – Played a great lob to Ramires, but was troubled by Johnson more than once.
- David Luiz: 9.5 – Whoever this doppelganger is, keep him.
- Gary Cahill: 7 – Solid.
- Ivanovic: 6.5 – In fine commandant form as usual, delivering accurate crosses, but lost Johnson for the goal.
- Romeu: N/A – Injured, but played well in his short appearance.
- Ramires: 8 – Signs of his best form with long-legged strides and pace.
- Juan Mata: 10 – He is the center of this team’s universe.
- Victor Moses: 9 – Cementing his place, one match at a time.
- Eden Hazard: 9 – His form dictates our attacking fortunes considerably. Outpaced his marker for fun.
- Fernando Torres: 10 – Let’s hope he has reset his form rather than simply his “due a goal” timer.
- Oscar: 9 – When he bulks up, he will be dominate the English and European game.
- Ryan Bertrand: 7 – An excellent option to be able to shut up shop.
- Rafael Benitez: 9 – The team was organized as can be. Surely he had something to do with that.
- The board and owner: 28 – The amount of grams in the ounce of whatever they are smoking.
Men of the Match
Fernando Torres for giving us a two-goal cushion, Juan Mata for his consistently cosmic contributions, David Luiz for standing firm and Petr Cech for ensuring it wasn’t 3-3.
The Sunday Telegraph, Luke Edwards: “With Chelsea stepping up their efforts to sign a new striker in the new year this was the timeliest reminder of what Fernando Torres can do. At long last. Four goals in two appearances in four days is an impressive return although it is a moot point as to which team he faced were worse: Danish champions FC Nordsjaelland in the Champions League or the ragbag of Sunderland who dropped into the bottom three with this defeat.”
The Observer, Louise Taylor: “Admittedly this could be described as a mixed 90 minutes from Torres but, quite apart from his first league goals since early October, there were definite purple patches replete with exhilarating movement, acceleration and shooting. With a little more luck, he could easily have completed a treble.”
The Independent on Sunday, Martin Hardy: “The theory has been that he needs to be isolated to play well, to have the freedom to play on the last defender, but that argument looked nonsense against Sunderland. Victor Moses was just about a right winger, Juan Mata his strike partner and Eden Hazard a left winger. Every single Sunderland defender was occupied from the first minute …”
The Official Chelsea FC Website: “The Blues secured a much-needed three points, our first league win since October, with a 3-1 win over Sunderland at the Stadium of Light, after two first-half Fernando Torres goals had put us firmly in the ascendancy.”
Image credit: flickr/grimages