There’s been quite a large concentration of fuss and bother in the short space of three days. Unless you possess the sickeningly deviant predilection of watching that which you love falter at the final hurdle, a transitional Chelsea squandering a 2-0 lead against Juventus did not make for serene viewing. Since the Italian champions have gone undefeated in almost 40 games in the scandal-ridden Serie A, several amongst us understood that the nature of the match and final result did not warrant protestation or grievance. Some thought otherwise. The underworld of the twitterati, armed with mendacity and 140 characters, tarnished the post-match debate – and the reputation of Chelsea’s support – by forcing Obi Mikel to abandon his account. Lunacy abound.
More ominously, Uncle Roman conducted another inspection of Cobham. In recent years, his visits have gained infamy because they alluded to – and preceded – a ruthless sacking. While Roman must have merely sought a more in-depth explanation regarding three back-to-back, less-than-ideal performances, no one with an iota of business sense invests drastically in youth with provincial expectations of immediate, stellar returns from a new epoch still in its infancy. And neither has Di Matteo’s tenure reached such an odious stage. I do wonder, however, in what tone and demeanor an introverted Russian billionaire carries out an informal inquest into first-team matters. In fact, I don’t believe I’ve even heard the man speak. I have to admit, it is not what I had imagined in the slightest.
Genuinely embattled managers, as well as those under pressure contrived by the legion of sensationalists masquerading as journalists, have all had to relay the right impression of the unannounced stopover by the owner. But pressure does not seem to exist in the Matteon management school’s curriculum, and the imperturbable Robbie played it by the book, reiterating that such hierarchical surveillance remains customary and cordial. In other words, it’s just business. In this instance, prior to just the fifth matchday, it was.
Amid all the business-as-usual drama, Chelsea were expected to convincingly see off an outfit that has proved to be a peculiar opponent. In recent years, Chelsea sides experiencing an indifferent spell have laboured against a Stoke side that attempted only five through balls the whole of last season, according to Opta. Let that sink in. Five through balls in 38 matches. Tony Pulis’ agricultural brand of football troubled Scolari’s Chelsea, requiring a Frank Lampard stoppage time winner, stifled Villas-Boas’ tactics in his first outing as manager and, most recently, tested Di Matteo’s Premier League debut. Even a fully confident Chelsea under Carletto Ancelotti needed a Florent Malouda strike in the dying minutes. Certainly a fixture with a spot of bother and a pattern of late, decisive goals then.
At a glance, the team appeared lightweight, but it was a progressive selection from Di Matteo and the backroom boys, with perhaps the creative trio we’ve all been waiting to see – Hazard, Oscar and Mata – behind a frontman who still has a little to prove, one feels. A bold, strategic and logical decision to drop the captain and second-in-command: the team must gradually wean off reliance on either, their legs must be used sparingly and Terry did betray his experience and ability during crucial moments in midweek. Perhaps more significantly, Chelsea’s talismans were rotated without a word, gesture or noticeable attitude of disagreement. That in itself is a measure of sustainable progress.
The first 45
Chelsea’s dynamic attacking calibre flew out of the chamber from the very start. Flair, verve and a keen understanding of what was required was on show. The creative trio all bring something different: Hazard offers a physical balance to his guile and Oscar, deservedly earning consecutive starts and brimming with confidence, could very well be Lampard’s successor given his penchant for a long range shot while instinctively prowling just outside the box. If you do not know what Mata is all about by now, you are beyond salvation. Speaking of which, Ramires, whose form needs a bit of salvaging, looked far more comfortable – and effective – in a central role where his stride and stamina can be utilized fully. Mikel, a solid central defensive midfielder worthy of his starting role, distributed and tackled assuringly.
Not for the first time, though, the day’s brightest attacking threat was Commandant Branislav Ivanovic. Is Chelsea’s play so intrinsically tilted to the left that the selected right full-back almost always plays a key role in the final third? I distinctly remember Bosingwa serving as an attacking outlet one too many times. Not that I’m complaining about Branna’s imperious marches down the flank.
At the back, Cahill and Luiz will form the club’s first choice central defensive pairing for the near and distant future. Matches like this are crucial to forming not only an understanding between the two, but a foxhole bond.
Match analysts are already labelling Ivanovic’s penalty claim as a dive. It is disconcerting that so many penalty shouts have been ignored by referees after Hazard repeatedly capitalized on his maniacal ability to lure opponents into a risky tussle in their box. Did we reveal too much too soon? Just to be clear, there is a fine line between exploiting the slightest contact and unequivocally diving. Blatant theatrics would have forced the referee to brandish a yellow card. He didn’t. Fair play.
There exists another thoroughly demarcated boundary between an efficiently beautiful performance and a traveling circus act. At times our play hinged on the latter. Despite however much it may arouse audiences, unnecessarily intricate, over-elaborate passing moves on the edge of the box constitute the greatest hamartia of an insatiable desire to attain sex appeal on the pitch. Indeed, attempting to play through the heart of a side whose key strength lies in its ability to centralize a deep defense only illuminates the innate flaws of haute football even more. The players do seem to be far too eager to keep up an unfeasibly fast passing momentum. That is a skill not easily mastered – and less so on a match day itself. The lack of a crisp final ball was telling and downright frustrating. One sincerely hopes the rapid change of philosophies still preserves a semblance of the power element so emblematic of Chelsea’s attacking play.
Leading the line once again, Torres, after an exquisite piece of chipped service from his diminutive compatriot, miskicked six yards from goal. Just business as usual? Years prior I might have added, “…when it looked easier to score”. But I realized that my Saturday afternoons often consist of dark ales, darker stouts, rich, indulgent food and sinful levels of comfort. I, like many, haven’t the slightest idea what looks easier to score.
Lastly, the players, as has often been the case, were perturbed during set pieces – and Walters very nearly punished that very lack of vigilance. This is one area that, I’m sorry to say, has never been the same since Mourinho’s defensive staff left with him.
The second 45
As the referee recommenced proceedings, a solitary goal would indeed suffice given the stubbornness of the tie.
At one stage, the panic button seemed to have been hit as Luiz, Cahill and Ivanovic all took up attacking positions. Yet, there was no breakthrough. The finishing belied the buildup. The Vidal-like viciousness needed in the final third had just not crystallized. As I mentioned earlier, free-flowing, high risk football, is not easily inculcated. While the personnel is there in abundance, the seamless understanding isn’t quite. Hazard, for instance, seemed to be a few steps ahead of his teammates – his potentially penetrative back-heel pass to Ramires was of a pace of thought a few steps ahead of a team trained in the trenches.
Mata began to look increasingly uncomfortable on either flank. On the right, he is, at the very least, able to cut in on his favoured foot. While on Chelsea’s vaunted left hand side, the Asturian playmaker found himself having to make inroads to burrow for his central comfort zone.
As the team look ill-prepared on defensive set pieces, it looked equally incapable of conducting itself aggressively at the opposing end. The final corner tally was 13 to three in favour of home team.
But a smart summer made sure options lie in waiting. The ever-impressive Victor Moses and the indefatigable Frank Lampard replaced Hazard and Mikel, respectively.
In the 84th minute, when a second consecutive scoreless draw seemed the truest possibility, the pattern of late goals against Stoke City told once again. Take very special notice of Di Matteo’s established and altered tactics in securing all three points. While the selected substitutes exchanged passes, Robbie’s stringent policy of allowing both full-backs to remain further up the pitch as frequently as possible paid off yet again. Ivanovic played a key first-time pass to Mata. A shrewd tactical shift after Moses’ introduction allowed the frustrated Spaniard to float in a more central area in order to dictate play more decisively. A perfectly situated Ashley Cole dispatched Mata’s world-class touch with the same audacity and precision as his hairstylist’s trimmer to claim a rare league goal. Oh how we needed that.
Four minutes later, an even less familiar sight took shape on the sidelines. A fit John Terry waited to replace Juan Mata. When was the last time a fully fit John Terry and Frank Lampard were brought off the bench so late in the game, let alone to shut up shop? Surely it is a sight one will grow more accustomed to, but that had to be a first.
At the end of the day, Chelsea grinded out a hard-fought win over a stifling opponent after some frustrating link-up play and relatively minor defensive lapses to cement our top spot for the weekend. In the end, it was three points; it was a clean sheet; it was just Chelsea; it was just business.
The players will be rated according to their corporate identities:
- Cech – FoxConn – very few know what it’s like to get past the gates.
- Ivanovic – Evraz – the world’s largest steelmaker with operations just about everywhere. The man was
everywhere, involved in virtually every attack of significance.
- Cahill – BP – commanding, influential and is summoned more than once to clear up a mess.
- Luiz – Facebook – a little too enthusiastic, a little too erratic with his decisions and a bit overbearing at times, but he has the support and knows what he’s doing.
- Ashley Cole – Playboy Enterprises, Inc.
- Ramires – Petrobras – because he is definitely running on an external fuel source.
- Mikel – McDonald’s – a model supply chain.
- Hazard – Pixar – creative, effective, entertaining and a heavyweight in his own right.
- Oscar – Kickstarter – a start-up whose stock is on the rise.
- Mata – The Economist Group – sharp, intelligent, analytical, sees things others do not.
- Torres – Apple – slick, shiny, but improves his final product incrementally.
- Moses (sub) – Colgate – fresh and outright necessary.
- Lampard (sub) – Berkshire-Hathaway – a highly respected name in all circles.
- Terry – TNK-BP (sub) – has gotten into some legally tiresome situations, has been expelled, you never know how long things will last, but will continue to dominate so long as they do.
- And finally… Stoke City – The Agricultural Bank of China. No offence to China.
Man of the Match
Flip a coin for Juan Mata or Commandant Ivanovic. Ivanovic must be tails.
The press reports
The Observer, Paul Doyle: “Chelsea’s quest for style means more than integrating recent recruits: it also, apparently, entails teaching old dogs new tricks. After 85 minutes of frustration, Ashley Cole, who had not scored since an 8-0 win over Wigan in May 2010, popped up and finished like a natural striker, dinking the ball over Asmir Begovic to sicken valiant Stoke City and give Chelsea a three-point reward for an uncertain performance.”
The Sunday Telegraph, Jason Burt: “For much of this encounter Roman Abramovich had that look on his face — a mixture of bemusement and Roman Emperor-like displeasure — that suggested Chelsea manager Roberto Di Matteo should be shifting a little uneasily on the bench. In the end, Chelsea got the victory they desired, but did not necessarily deserve, and the club’s owner will have felt a pang of vindication that his visit to the training ground the day after the Champions League draw at home to Juventus had the necessary effect.”
The Independent on Sunday, Steve Tongue: “It took the collector’s item that is an Ashley Cole goal to ensure that Chelsea will still top the Premier League whatever their Manchester rivals manage from tricky assignments today.”
The Official Chelsea FC Website: “Ashley Cole’s first goal since May 2010 was enough to send the Blues back to winning ways as he scored late on to settle a keenly fought contest. The left-back’s previous strike had been an icing-on-the-cake moment on the day we won the league by thumping Wigan. This time his effort made the difference between one point and all three and in the context of this season, it could have immense value.”