“Resurrection Man can’t stay dead for long, though – and with each rebirth comes new and unexpected powers. But his many returns have not gone unnoticed, and forces are gathering to learn what’s so special about him”
A complete Nervous Norvus prior to kick off, I was perched in the upper reaches of the East Stand, contemplating just how grim the season might get and gripped by a sense of foreboding that seemed to be eating into the very souls of the Chelsea faithful.
Talking of the faithful, a very large number of those around me did not appear to be regulars, indeed by the number of languages, a good few were just passing through although Chelsea fans none the less. This did mean that when the “Anthem” was sung (led by who?) there weren’t many who joined me in a lusty rendition of “Blue is the Colour”. Or perhaps my tuneless baying so overwhelmed them they were too shocked to even try.
I got the distinct impression that ticket sales did not reflect the crucial nature of the tie, with some regular fans having taken a decision to miss the Champions League group stages, little realising how tough it was going to be. That’s just an impression. But, it would be interesting to compare the crowd last night with that for City on Monday. To me the ground only just about filled and lacked the intensity of big European nights. And given recent form and the possibility of Europa League Thursdays, I thought this was a big European night. Down in the Matthew Harding Lower it might, of course, have sounded very different, from where I sat the atmosphere seemed less than intimidating.
You couldn’t say that about Drogba.
After three minutes he had the opener and went on to give the sort of display that reminded us all just what a fabulous player he has been for Chelsea. Perhaps the changes in the modern game have fractured the emotional bonds that place players like Osgood and Dixon so close to our hearts. The difference in wealth between player and fan may mean that we never quite believe in the legend any more, but mercurial and unpredictable as he can be, Drogba is a diamond.
It’s easy to forget the injuries and malaria that have beset him, but I think it’s no coincidence that with a run of games under his belt, with some condition returning, he was capable of turning in the powerhouse display we got from him last night. Of course he will go on to frustrate and annoy, age means his powers will wane, but I’m glad I was there, if only to see it one more time and to know it’s still in him. It wasn’t the memory playing tricks, or stories retold and embellished, we really have been privileged to watch one of the world’s great front men ply his trade.
And it wasn’t just Drogba emerging from the graveyard of reputation. It was like the Night of the Living Dead out there. Terry, calm, composed, Cole, steady if a little short of pace on occasion, Luiz focused and incisive, Ivanovic concentrated and Villas-Boas showing that he can change and adapt to the needs of the moment. Even Malouda, Mikel and Torres got on to put in their cameos.
The only lid that stayed firmly shut, the only box that didn’t creak open was Lampard’s. He remained entombed. But he’ll return.
Looking back, it all seems quite straightforward. The boys scored early, got the second before 25 minutes had passed and Valencia, though they did force some decent saves from Cech, never looked like they believed they could do it.
Based on previous heartbreak, I was of course convinced they could.
I can’t say that I wasn’t worried until the third goal went in, because I was and kept waiting for the axe to fall. Looking at my jottings I see that at halftime I was moved to write, “2-0, the worst lead in footie” (footie? I apologise unreservedly, but lack of shorthand and the pressure of the night is all I can offer in mitigation). Indeed, prior to the second half starting, “The Ref? Calamity? Or Joy?” seems to sum up just how little succour was offered by a two goal lead. Around the 70 minute mark when Drogba had battled his way into the box only to shoot wide, I see the words “Wide! That was the game, there!” almost scratched into the paper. It’s only three or four comments later that a relieved “Surely now!” as Drogba scored his second, intimates a more settled frame of mind.
I wanted them to press quickly around the ball, I didn’t want them sitting, I didn’t want Mata left to fend off the wide man on his own, I thought that the full-backs were tucking in too far, I was frustrated when we gave the ball away under pressure, I was desperate for Sturridge to put away one of those chances, it all looked like Barcelona under Hiddink, and how did that end?
But what do I know? They kept their shape, took enough of their chances and focused until the final whistle. It won’t be every game where we allow so much possession. Indeed I’d be curious as to whether that was more a function of scoring early than the overall game plan. Whatever. AVB and the team seemed to have a plan and it worked.
There were plenty of good performances, but I was particularly impressed with Romeu. A few months ago I expected to see him in the cup games and perhaps one or two Premiership games later on. There he was last night anchoring midfield in a crucial game. He made a few mistakes and his role demands that he knows where the ball will be in three passes time, something that comes with experience. Yet he made no major errors and grew into the game. Towards the end he put in a couple of bone jarring tackles, the kind you rarely see these days. Clean, ball winners. I think it shook the referee up a bit and he decided to book the second one. The only time I noticed the man in the middle all night, to give him his due.
Mikel for Ramires on 65 minutes. Now that got the heads shaking. And yet, if I look at my notes I can see that pressure was really building. A series of corners was conceded and the team was penned in. AVB had to act. And significantly it was after Mikel came on that Romeu started to move higher up the pitch, got in those tackles, and was more active in the game. Indeed he was involved in the build up to the goal. Luck or design? It was AVB’s night whichever way you look at it.
I’m sure the broad Chelsea church will quickly forget the performance and importance of the result and debate whether AVB has been forced to be more pragmatic, whether he’s been told to rein it in from on high or that the players have put their foot down. Lordy, he may even have made up his own mind.
But that’s three “first” team games on the trot where we’ve scored three and kept a clean sheet. Have we climbed the mountain or are we just breasting the brow of a foothill and the mountain waits beyond. Frankly I don’t care today. I’m just going to enjoy the win.
And so inevitably with the modern game, we come to the post match phase. I haven’t seen AVB’s interview yet. I’ve read what he said. They seem like strong words, but context and tone are everything. The press corps will not like it. They don’t like to be presented with their, sometimes almost unconscious, prejudices. They want to rip you to bits and then say it’s just business. You’re supposed to take it. They can make it personal, you mustn’t. Unless of course you’re Alex Ferguson who got their number years ago and goes his own sweet way.
Well, to some extent young Andre has crossed the rubicon, intentionally or not. Should he have kept quiet? Perhaps. But we were reminiscing about Drogba last night after the game (lotion in hand it must be said) and there was an agreement that after the Barca fiasco, someone had to say something and Drogs gave it to ‘em straight. Right down the lens. The lens that continued to follow him around while they all fell back in shock and mock horror. Sometimes plain speaking is what is required.
They want it both ways. The pretence that they just report, that they are a neutral medium by which we follow the game is utter cobblers. They won’t like AVB tearing down the curtain and making his displeasure at them as individuals clear. He’s pointed to them as the agenda setters, the constructors of the narrative. They’ll be looking for payback.
It all started back in the summer when he upset the scribblers by not giving them a separate briefing to the tellytypes. It has rumbled on and they took full opportunity during his recent travails. Prior to this week, the last sods of earth were shovelled on, they had all downed tools and were wandering out the cemetery gates, wreathed in self congratulation at a job well done. But back in the graveyard the earth was stirring.
The Resurrection Man.
I mentioned Nervous Norvus at the beginning of the piece. On a night when the team seemed infused and the players came back to life, it is appropriate to revisit ol’ Norvus’ 1956 classic, “Transfusion”.
“Pour the crimson in me, Jim son.”
The press reports
The Guardian, Kevin McCarra: “This may be the night that constituted the true start of Andre Villas-Boas’s reign as manager. By the close, there was surely no Chelsea fan could who could even recall the unease they had felt before kick-off. The jubilation is all the more intense since the side have vaulted over Bayer Leverkusen to enter the last 16 of the Champions League as group winners. That status, valuable as it is, will not be recalled for many seasons to come, unlike the forward who did so much to deliver it. Age, on this showing, is simply honing Didier Drogba. If he is conserving energy it makes him all the more lethal in the penalty area and here the Ivorian claimed two of the three goals against Valencia.”
The Daily Telegraph, Henry Winter: “All [Villas-Boas’s] decisions were vindicated, from omitting Frank Lampard, to starting Didier Drogba, who scored twice and made the other for Ramires. With Genk holding Bayer Leverkusen, Chelsea enjoyed a double delight on the night. The headlines will scream about “AVB Teaching An Old Drog New Tricks” but others deserve equal mention in the inky and digital dispatches.”
The Independent, Sam Wallace: “There are some occasions upon which only a vintage performance from Didier Drogba will do, and fortunately for Andre Villas-Boas last night, in his hour of direst need, Chelsea’s young manager got one from his battle-scarred centre-forward. This was, in the end, a return to the sledgehammer Drogba of his golden years, the sledgehammer with the gossamer touch, who can take defences on single-handedly and make opponents shrink with self-doubt. His first goal after three minutes calmed Stamford Bridge’s mood, his second – Chelsea’s third – put the game beyond doubt, and in between he led the line alone as only he can.”
The Official Chelsea FC Website: “What was all the fuss about? Chelsea are through to the last 16 of the Champions League after a brilliant home win, with goals courtesy of a Didier Drogba pair and Ramires. It had all looked so dangerous before the game, with victory needed to absolutely guarantee qualification, but nerves were quickly settled when after two minutes Drogba had put us in front when he danced around a defender inside the box and smashed low into the bottom corner. The same player turned creator for the second when he sent Ramires through, though the goal owed as much to the midfielder’s persistence in chasing a speculative through ball as it did the slide-rule pass in behind the defence. It was not all plain sailing though, as in between Valencia struck a post and Petr Cech pulled off a save of world-class proportions to deny David Albelda an equaliser, but Chelsea rarely looked threatened afterwards. Drogba rolled in a third 15 minutes from time to make three huge points safe, and the Stamford Bridge party could begin.”
The manager’s reaction
“Finishing top is fantastic and nobody would have put a bet on us doing that.
“It was very gratifying for the team who were excellent. It was a win of team spirit, solidarity, responsibility, strength of character, ability to take criticism and resilience and this is a great win for Chelsea players.
“The players deserve respect they don’t get and we have been continuously chased by different kinds of people and different kinds of pressure. Maybe today we gave everybody a slap in the face.
“There is continuous persecution of Chelsea, continuous aggressiveness for one club. We have become a target and we have to accept that but tomorrow they have to report on a brilliant win with Chelsea qualifying first.
“We made changes to the way we played.
“We tried it at Newcastle the other day. We kept our [defensive] block a little bit lower down the pitch – a medium/low compact block with not a lot of space between the lines. It worked quite well.
“We gave Valencia the initiative and their possession was tremendous. Nobody has given us praise for keeping possession before but football is driven by results. Today we have had an excellent result and the initiative was on Valencia’s side, but they couldn’t find the correct spaces and they left us the gap to come around in transition and exploit those spaces.
“It was different in Valencia when we played very high up, their goalkeeper was crucial to the result and nobody hailed our style of play. Today we closed together our lines but that doesn’t mean we are going to do the same in the future.
“In the way we set out our philosophy, there are human values that you cannot forget, and today they showed themselves to an unbelievable amount. It was a different strategy but the same philosophy when it came to human values.”
(Thanks to Blue Tinted Nick on Twitter for the inspiration behind the featured image.)
Drogba an absolute wrecking ball today. Still not at his very best but such a handful. The role he was born to play.
— BlueTinted Nick (@Blue_TintedCFC) December 6, 2011