(or as Wotan says, “Valhalla may not be burning yet, but I wouldn’t light a ciggie in here.”)
Bayer Leverkusen v Chelsea – The Down to The Wire Edition
Leverkusen, Bayer Leverkusen. The name speaks to us of an industrial Germany, a modern Germany. Pharmaceuticals. Clean rooms, antiseptic surfaces, cool, calm research.
But we are in the north Rhineland and a darker, earthier more human story lurks below the shiny surfaces and the urban construct.
We are in the land of myth and legend; the great river Rhine, the primordial forests. It is a land of heroes, dragons, dwarves (the non-throwing kind), knights, nymphs and mystical interactions between Gods and humans. The setting for tales of Siegfried, Lohengrin and water sprites.
It was out of such stuff that Richard Wagner by blending in Norse legend produced his epic four opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen (Ring of the Nibelung), one of the greatest works of art of the 19th or indeed any century.
(Although you might view it as just big birds with braided hair, armour and spears singing for hours against a general cacophony. Mind you that bit in Apocalypse Now with Robert Duval and the helicopters is a good tune.)
It is a portrayal of love, power, ambition and betrayal. As with all great art, the depth and layering allows every generation to re-interpret it in light of the prevailing mood and philosophical drift.
The cycle ends, of course with the immolation of Brunhilde (she of the braids and armour), the burning of Valhalla, home of the Gods, as the ring forged from gold stolen from the Rhinemaidens, is returned to the river and their possession. Does all ambition to construct art end in ultimate failure? Is the will to forge the artefact always thwarted by deeper, uncontrolled urges? (Well if you’re judging it by the quality of what I’m writing then Mr Wagner may have had a point.)
Wotan’s drive for power and control ends in destruction. Even the Gods are not immune from fate and cannot escape their doom. Loss and decay figure heavily in the grand scheme.
Now if you prefer your loss, decay, ambition and betrayal in a more modern context, in the urban rather than the pastoral: if you want to contemplate the twilight of a crumbling empire through a more contemporary lens, then look no further than the cinematography of a Leverkusen native, Uta Briesewitz, who worked on The Wire for some 29 episodes.
The mean streets of Baltimore from its drug infested projects to its corrupted municipal functions becomes a metaphor for the steady erosion of the human spirit by the endless lap of desire, hunger, greed, ambition and the consequences of choice on our doom.
And whether you’re an opera buff or a Wire fanatic, tonight was one of those occasions where life imitates art just a little too cleverly for my palate.
Now it is here where I have to make a judgement. No-one’s going to be reading this without knowing the result and while sometimes a real-time stream of consciousness approach works well, I fear we may be in Silent Witness territory, with me as grim faced Amanda Burton, mulling over the latest corpse to hit the slab, and God knows they’re piling up.
So for Leverkusen it is worth pointing out that most of starters were German, and they would include the masked legend that is Michael Ballack. Playing in the hole behind the frontman he showed why he may have been worth another couple of years’ wonga, if we weren’t going to blood the kids. But then who was to know eh? (I saw Matic came on as a sub for Benfica last night – good for him.)
The Chelsea fan on the Leverkusen omnibus will have been surprised, perhaps, by the omission of Torres, with Drogba starting. Ashley Cole was also missing through injury and Bosingwa took his place. “Well that’ll be popular,” I thought to myself. I may be wrong but I believe it was a case of Mereiles and Ramires slightly withdrawn with Lampard flanked by Sturridge and Mata, with Drogba furthest forward.
I made a pile of notes in case I wanted to go into detail. And it may still come to that as I engage in fierce hand to hand combat with fellow bloggers. But I sense that a detailed, discursive ramble through the game will offer little to you dear reader.
So here is a distillation of my thoughts in the recent aftermath. I have avoided trawling through the online media so as to give you my immediate thoughts.
The debate can come later.
The First Half
“I’ll do what I can to help y’all. But, the game’s out there, and it’s play or get played. That simple.” –Omar, The Wire
If you were hoping for a crash, bang, wallop destruction of the opposition then you haven’t watched much European footie since Wagner was a lad. The first half was cagey, tentative football. A draw, you felt wouldn’t be too disastrous for either side and they both played that way.
After recent games, I was hoping for a calm, error-free (well catastrophic error-free) performance where they took their chances. All in all, while it wasn’t inspiring, apart from one or two sloppy passes in dangerous areas and Ballack heading against the bar, they kept Leverkusen at arm’s length without really showing a cutting edge themselves; although there were a couple of chances towards the end of the half, one in particular where Drogba should have done better when forced wide by the keeper.
Now it may be a growing paranoia, but I watch the game convinced that one ball from back to front will cut them open any second. That didn’t happen too readily in the first half, yet I still felt that, while Bayer closed Chelsea down and pressed the ball effectively, they were allowed too much time and room when in possession themselves. Well that might be fine if you are blocking up the final third, but there seemed to be space there as well. This isn’t hindsight. I noted this during the first half. There is just too much time for the ball player to pick the pass. As was noted after Liverpool, it isn’t a lack of effort, but somehow, the screening and pressing isn’t working.
And as often happens when a team is struggling for form, too many passes were misdirected or the ball carrier hesitated and the best option disappeared. At one point on the left, Mereiles passed to Lampard and moved for the return. Mata was available on the overlap, but Frank chose neither, took a couple of touches too many and turned infield. Mereiles looked frustrated. That was the story. Not enough zip and sharpness. At times it seems there are two styles clashing out there.
The highlight of the evening thus far, was when I earned my punditry badge by writing down the word “cagey” in my notes (see above) just before Roy Keane used the phrase on the telebox.
Half – The Second
“No-one wins, one side just loses more slowly.” – Prez, The Wire
A bright start and a goal on 48′. Now they were cooking. Except it was a high intensity episode of Masterchef and they were about to bollox the soufflé.
A good pass from Sturridge, and Drogba still had work to do but he finished well. Now could they build on it? As with Sunday, they then created a few more decent chances before gradually being pushed back. An overhead kick close to the hour from Ballack was then followed by an even better chance for the caped crusader, but Cech made a superb stop. A couple of good breakouts came and went through taking the wrong option or making a poor pass. Sturridge was using his speed well and posed a threat all the time but there was no clinical finish from him or his team mates.
An anonymous Mata was replaced just after the hour by Malouda, who went onto link well with Bosingwa several times to good effect. At 70 minutes or thereabouts a chap called Derdiyok came on. It was an attacking substitution. How attacking we saw a couple of minutes later, when another defensive breakdown saw the diagonal long ball catch the full-back not covering the wide player and the result was a goal by that very individual. Bosingwa’s mistake? No Ivanovic. No-one, it seems, is immune. Strangely Alex who had been on for all our shut-outs this season had just come on for Luiz. Omens.
In the legend Siegfried bathes in a slayed dragon’s blood so as to become invincible. But unseen by him, there is a small leaf on his back and like Achilles with his heel, this small vulnerability will be his downfall. Chelsea appear to have bathed in the leaves and missed out on the dragon’s blood.
Five minutes later a good move ended with Drogba downed in the area. Yes folks, it’s the obligatory stone certain, nailed on penalty denied. Nothing left to say.
A couple of more chances. Mikel replaced Mereiles. On the 85th minute Drogba was injured on the edge of the Bayer box. Inexplicably a free kick not given and he was a passenger from then on as all three substitutes had been used. Then on the 89th minute, Lampard had a great chance to pick out Sturridge but left it short. Leverkusen collected the ball and Bosingwa, who made some good defensive interventions in the second half, was forced to concede the corner.
Alex was beaten to the header by Friedrich and Cech strangely flapped at a ball he surely could have got fingers to.
Thor’s Hammer couldn’t have dealt a more crushing blow. In Valhalla we were starting to smell smoke.
Despite six substitutions and Drogba’s injury, barely two minutes of injury time were played.
“Game’s the same, just got more fierce.” – Slim Charles, The Wire
Interviewed after the game Ballack was a gent.
AVB looked bereft and shell shocked.
It is worth taking a breath and noting that without a win, we were always going to have to beat Valencia. And to make the sense of doom more oppressive, they have some unfinished business, when it comes to late goals.
It’s really the psychological blow that is the worry. Confidence and belief is draining away, I’m sure.
I’m not going spend too much time assessing the players. Sturridge looked bright. Drogba, I thought, grew into the game. Despite the stick he gets I thought Malouda did well when he came on. Mata was very subdued, which is a worry. Lampard lacked fluency, more so than the others. Bosingwa did fine at left-back considering. Luiz needs to improve his decision making as he still got caught with the ball a couple of times when deep, but he seems more composed of late.
The nagging thought is that there are too many players not playing where they’re most comfortable. Mata and Sturridge, in particular. One is still making an impact, the other isn’t. And while I like Ivanovic, I don’t think he’s a natural right-back. Luiz looked more comfortable to me when he played on the left side a few games ago. I don’t think AVB has found the mix he really wants in midfield yet. To some extent that seemed to be an issue that dogged Ancelotti as well.
Villas-Boas has a real problem on his hands because as with last year, the team seems to have stopped getting the basics right. It’s all about poor execution. The difference is that players then came back from injury and the team started to roll again. But AVB has a full squad now. Questions are being asked about his man management, irrespective of whether it’s right to point the finger or not.
Torres seemed to be discovering some form, then got sent off and hasn’t really got back in. Kalou and Alex are on the fringe and now Anelka appears to be increasingly peripheral. Add to that the fact that as the pressure increases it becomes more unlikely we’ll see young players get a chance, just as happened last season. So Josh, Bertrand and others kick around with little game time.
On the other hand, not everyone can play and too much rotation means a team will never bed down. You can argue that after injury and illness Drogba needs the game time. How is the manager to assess his squad unless he tries different players and combinations? The peril of trying to establish a team and playing style while satisfying the high level of expectation is, as always at Chelsea, a huge problem.
But I don’t see them training, I’m not in the dressing room and therefore the dynamics of the group is a mystery to me. Is it the players, the manager, the coaches or a combination of all three?
Oh dear, like the team I’m running out of steam, worn down by the sadness of it all.
It’s time to sign off. I’m a simple soul at heart and the complexities of Wagner are too much at this juncture, indeed probably at any juncture. It’s the voice of Townes Van Zandt that will rock me to sleep. I can’t find my favourite version of this song from the 1972 album, The Late Great Townes Van Zandt, when his voice was mellow-sweet with a touch of Texan astringency. So this will have to do as it is the only version I can find for now.
“Far across the blue water lives an old German’s daughter
By the banks of the old river Rhine
Where I loved her and left her but I can’t forget her
I miss my pretty Fraulein”
Yes, I’ll drift away and dream of the Rhine. Or have a nightmare.
The Press Reports
The Guardian, Dominic Fifield: “Chelsea’s campaign continues to close in around them. For a while last night the Londoners flirted with qualification into the group stage, a rare away victory in Europe and a clean sheet to ease their recent defensive jitters. In the end, pegged back and then beaten in added time, their progress into the knock-out phase suddenly appears in jeopardy.”
The Daily Telegraph, Jason Burt: “The Wolves are coming and last night Chelsea, at the BayArena, could not keep the wolves at bay. There is a growing sense of bloodlust about them right now. Villas-Boas has talked of being bold and attacking and wanting to win every match but in doing so he is walking a tightrope without a safety net. He is too often sliding into defeat, too often facing what he has termed a “negative spiral”. Spiralling out of control right now.”
The Independent, Rory Smith: “And so the hangman tightens his noose. Andre Villas-Boas’s talk of execution before his side’s domestic nightmare infested their European dreams might have seemed premature, almost paranoid, testament to how the spectres of his predecessors, each of them destined to feel the breath hot on their neck and the dreaded touch on their shoulder, loom over the post of Chelsea manager. Now, for the Portuguese too, the shadows lengthen.”
The Official Chelsea FC Website: “With 90 minutes played, it looked as if Chelsea were to draw away 1-1 for the third time in this group stage but then the home team struck a sickening blow, scoring from a corner to leave just a point covering the top three sides going into the final games. A win or a 0-0 draw at home to Valencia in two weeks’ time is now imperative.”