It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. Churchill was not actually referring to the Soviet Union, but merely alluding to Chelsea Football Club. He surely had to be. There is no more apt description of all that has transpired since, ironically enough, a Russian took over. The oft-omitted last portion of this widely used quotation reads “…but there is a key” – a method to the madness; a calculation to the lunacy; a cosmic justification to all which is perceptibly faulty.
The torches and pitchforks were drawn in the wake up of back-to-back shutouts at home because, more than anything, the riddle, the mystery and the enigma have driven some of us to maddening frustration, and the “key” remains elusive. A neurotic change of fortune from a deceivingly simple 8-0 win against Villa and a splendidly hard-fought away win at Everton to an embarrassing, yet perhaps predictable, loss against QPR and a Wengerian capitulation to Swansea typify the inexplicable, perpetual patterns that tend to glorify and ossify many a season.
There have, of course, been times in the past decade when things were a tad more predictable. Unremorseful Chelsea sides have ruthlessly dispatched those that conspire to upset, but these instances have actually been the exception. The riddle has been the rule.
The fortifications of Stamford Bridge have certainly been weakened, and the fear that our ruthlessness once inspired to beat teams before they even set foot in the capital, is diminishing. Some have attributed the magnificence of the boisterous travelling support to Chelsea’s fortunes on the road. And are we shooting ourselves in the foot with the ill will that greets Benitez on home soil, a man the players clearly seem to have accepted? But the 12th man, for all their undoubted influence, is still not the “key.”
Under the spectre of uncertainty and two wretched performances, Benitez, his skin thickened by a litany of past feuds, knows that anything less than three points at the indomitable Britannia – a stadium that has become a de-facto litmus test (“can Messi do it on a cold wet night at the Britannia?”) – would further lower his stock. Remember this is a man who knows that, barring a miracle in the Premier League, he will receive his P45 and join the unemployment queue come May. He must leave with his reputation rebranded, if not fully restored, if he has any hope of being shortlisted by Europe’s elite. If he even partially unlocks the riddle-mystery-enigma amalgam, I’ll thank him for a job well done.
Petr Cech makes a much welcome return. Maybe I’m being too critical, but Turnbull was very poorly positioned – far too off his line – for Wright-Phillips’ shot.
Defensive Quartet: Gary Cahill became a father, congratulations to him. I don’t know the sex of the baby, but sign the little one up! David Luiz dropped back into defence after his midfield adventure. We seem certain to sign another midfielder and a persistent clamour of a deal for Fellaini being in the works means Luiz probably does not have much a future outside the back four. The rightfully infallible Ivanovic keeps his place. Cesar “Dave” Azpilicueta looks better by the match and Ashley Cole could very well be playing his last match in a Chelsea shirt against the team he scored at the death in October.
Midfield Duopoly: Super Frank. Sir Frank Lampard. 193 goals. Chelsea’s greatest ever? I’m inclined to believe he will take a pay cut to stay at the club. Forcing him out while keeping Torres would be a crime so heinous, the Hague would need to be notified. Ramires, who is going nowhere anytime soon, slotted alongside.
Triumvirate: Benitez either does not favour Oscar as highly as Robbie, sees his omission as key to keeping Chelsea’s shape intact, or both. With Moses in South Africa, Ryan Bertrand was expected to do the dirty work on the left. Mata resuming his gravitational role while Hazard orbited out to the right.
Lone Wolf: Having scored a hat-trick against Stoke for Newcastle and generally being a more robust individual, Demba Ba lead the line. Thank god. Apparently, Fernando Torres must have dabbled in a funky vindaloo as Benitez claimed his poor performance against Swansea was down to a “stomach bug.” He should see another gastroenterologist because that bug has been around for quite some time.
That’s just the team sheet. Which side actually shows up is, well, a riddle, a mystery and a damn enigma.
Early minutes reflected the confidence of each team. Stoke, basking in their undefeated dominance at home, pressed, bombarding with deep crosses, and we retreated with most of the team in and around the penalty box. Counter attacks that could be triggered were devoid of organization and imagination. Yet, as has been the case under Benitez’s defensive philosophy, the team remained firm and Ivanovic, obviously determined to make amends, rose highest to nearly every cross.
Had Kenwyne Jones taken his chance, it would have been desperately unlucky and changed the shape of the match completely. Petr Cech did make a difference by killing the angle well.
But soon, the tides shifted dramatically – and mysteriously – with Chelsea taking control of the match. Eden Hazard’s control with virtually every part of his anatomy ensured his comrades were able to strut up the pitch and take up dangerous positions. His class oozed with every touch. I am still of the belief that his form, more so than Mata’s in many ways, tends to define our attacking play.
Rafael Benitez said that nine times out of ten, Chelsea would have won that match against Swansea. Not the wisest statement, but nine times out of ten, Lampard would’ve slotted away Chelsea’s first real chance against Stoke, which was flicked on by none other than our Senegalese striker. How he still manages to find that mercurial positioning now must be blood deep. Intrinsic knowledge of his role and influence is what makes Frank Lampard the player he is. Ironically, the Stoke fans, chanted “Boring, boring, boring” as we controlled possession. A pint of whatever they‘re drinking, please.
As the half ended, Eden Hazard, with a touch of class, laid off a ball to “Dave,” who crossed, it must be said, absolutely perfectly, beating two defenders. Jonathan Walters, making Duncan Ferguson proud, hammered the ball with his cranium into the back of Stoke’s net. For all the YouTube compilers out there, kindly include this in the top 10 own goals of all time. Jokes aside, Mata would have got there had Mr. Walters failed to do so. It was a deserved 1-0 lead.
As the second half began, I noticed one attribute of our front line that stood out: The Ba. His hold up play, particularly muscling off two Stoke defenders to keep the ball, allowed our midfield to dictate the game. I don’t care what system we adopt, Chelsea’s modern DNA necessitates a striker who can play with his back to goal. Ba’s play ensured Mata, Hazard and Lampard could play the football they were born to. I recommend having a special scouting unit to identify West African target men – they seem to be built to play for no other club. And how comfortable Sir Frank seemed lobbing a long ball to Demba Ba, knowing full well that this was a striker who could chase down and wrestle with the best of the lot.
Somewhere in between our dominance and the lovely lineswoman sparing us a penalty, Walters went postal – scoring a second own goal to truly show us who’s boss. Roman, sign him up!
Stoke’s rugby league reputation soon preceded them as Shawcross, who actually made no contact with Mata, flew across the turf like Bruce Willis in Die Hard, prompting the referee to actually give Chelsea a penalty decision. It was a refreshing call, seeing as stonewall penalties were denied like a recession-era bank loan. Sir Frank Lampard unleashed a penalty that was so emblematic of his tenure, of his power, of his class, that it might as well have been the signature on his new contract. Had it not been for the heroics of Asmir Begovic, Lampard could – and should – have had his hat-trick.
Hazard capped the day with an orgasmic left-footed strike, curling and swerving into the far side of the net. Ballon D’Or class – you heard it here first. What was perhaps most impressive was his initial inclination to seek out a pass rather than take the shot. Such altruism is what will serve his career and Chelsea’s future well.
So there you have it, we thrashed Stoke in their own manor, something no team has done before, and it was done with style and panache after a few early scares. The commentators and pundits argued that it exemplified the performance of European champions. But, actually, it’s turning out to be quite the quintessential Chelsea season – hopeless internationals one day, world beaters the next. Some things truly never do change.
We are no closer to unravelling the riddle, solving the mystery or deciphering the enigma, but I will gladly rejoice in a ravaging at the folkloric Britannia.
How about those contracts, Bruce?
- Cech – 8. A commander.
- Cole – 9. He has enough in the tank to carry on playing at a world-class level for enough time to warrant an extension.
- David Luiz – 8. Back in defence and carried his midfield form over.
- Ivanovic – 9. Infallible.
- Azpilicueta – 9. Doing his best to impersonate Ashley Cole down the right.
- Lampard – 194. Ran the show and deserves whatever he asks for.
- Ramires – 9. Gives as good as he gets.
- Bertrand – 7. Struggled to get into the game but covered the left flank well.
- Mata – 9. Ground Zero.
- Hazard – 10. Still has every chance of being Chelsea’s first Ballon D’Or winner in a few years’ time.
- Demba Ba – 9. His back-to-goal play allowed the supporting trio to do what they do best.
- Terry (sub) – 6. Good to have him back, but is clearly a bit rusty given the penalty foul.
- Torres (sub) – Good question.
- Ferreira (sub) – 7. Mourinho’s perennial rating of his first signing.
Man of the Match
Super Frank. I still can’t bear the thought of him wearing anything other than a Chelsea shirt.
The Sunday Telegraph, Oliver Brown: “Chelsea are discovering that life on the road can be every bit as invigorating as Jack Kerouac suggested. Away from suffocating tensions on the home front at Stamford Bridge, where supporters have hardly helped inspire the team with recent mutinous chants, Rafael Benítez’s players extended their prolific away form to nine goals in two games while inflicting upon Stoke City the club’s heaviest home defeat in the Premier League.”
The Independent on Sunday, Simon Hart: “Away from the toxic atmosphere in the stands at Stamford Bridge, the Londoners are on quite a roll. This was Chelsea’s sixth successive away victory under Rafael Benitez and it was undoubtedly their most impressive as they tore apart a Stoke City team who had not lost at home since last February.”
The Observer, Paul Wilson: “Chelsea managed to deprive the Potters of their proud claim to be the last team in all four divisions with an unbeaten home record, proving that while Rafael Benítez’s side might have been through a blip with defeats to QPR and Swansea, they can still do it on a freezing cold Saturday in Stoke. Chelsea did not just end the record, they demolished it, and deserved to, though it always comes in handy when the home side chips in with two own goals from the same player, who then goes on to miss a penalty.”
The Official Chelsea FC Website: “Chelsea moved up into third place of the Barclays Premier League with a comfortable away win, which saw a combination of good fortune and a strong team performance.”
Goals and Highlights