Losing to Liverpool is much like a trip to the dentist. Irritating and occasionally painful, but you can take comfort in the knowledge that the experience is over fairly quickly and doesn’t happen that often anyway.
It says much about the power of football that in the 21st century the game has created a new and previously inexplicable emotional state; disappointment at not being able to spend a day in Cardiff. But possibly the only thing stranger than a slight feeling of envy at a convoy of caravans spending several hours stranded on the M4 in May was Jose’s team selection on Saturday evening.
As fans we spend much of our footballing lives in the smug, uncluttered hinterland known as hindsight, but the Chelsea team sheet presented on Saturday was nearly as baffling as the original Ronaldo-less piece of paper that appeared before the World Cup final in 1998.
What on earth is he playing at? Ferreira in midfield? No wingers? Essien at the point of the diamond? Has Claudio staged some sort of military coup and seized control of the changing room while Mourinho is gaffer-taped up in a locker somewhere?
Further debate on the assignment of roles and formations could rage for days but in truth the outcome is usually the same; when tactical switches work the manager is lauded as a visionary but when they fail he is a tinkering buffoon. Gameplan not working? Make substitutions after twenty minutes and you’re rash and impetuous, leave it for an hour and you’re stubborn and egotistical. Such is the life of Jose Mourinho.
The line-up was picked with a specific plan in mind and looked fairly strange to the average Chelsea fan, but it was arguably no stranger than the team named against West Ham recently. Both selections were about as easy to understand as Jamie Carragher reading a takeaway menu in Latin over a Network Rail PA, but while one worked spectacularly (even with ten men) and sent a message to our closest rivals that we weren’t about to concede the title, the other didn’t and cost us the chance of a Double. Funny. Old. Game.
As is often the case with Chelsea v. Liverpool games you brace yourself for what seems like days of goalless tedium, viewing anything else as a bonus above and beyond the usual football equivalent of a beer and tranquilisers cocktail. Thankfully, the opening exchanges hinted at a contest more likely to entertain than many of the previous encounters.
Chelsea started brightly, creating two chances for Drogba in the opening fifteen minutes. The first came from a Crespo flick which arrived at such pace the Ivorian probably knew little about it when heading wide, the second a glorious (and wrongly called onside) chance from the edge of the area which he pushed wide of the oncoming Reina and the post. But the chances were coming.
Despite the positives the sight of Harry Kewell skipping up and down the flanks was becoming more ominous as time passed. Both Geremi and Del Horno were frequently left chasing shadows which subsequently dragged Makelele out of position to cover, disrupting our natural game and allowing Liverpool a foothold in midfield.
With twenty minutes on the clock, the main pre-requisite of any Chelsea v. Liverpool contest reared its ugly head – the controversial refereeing decision. Terry and Luis Garcia challenged for the ball just outside the area; the Chelsea captain won it cleanly only for Graham Poll to inexplicably award Liverpool a free kick. Poll, one of the most mediocre referees in the game clearly didn’t want to be outdone by Mourinho in terms of bizarre decisions made.
Like Jose, we might point to the decision making as the reason for our exit from the FA Cup but we would be wrong to do so. This does not alter the fact that (supposedly) one of the country’s top officials put in a largely poor performance in terms of the key decisions he was asked to make.
If the decision was bad, the Chelsea wall was worse and far more culpable in terms of our downfall. It looked to have been constructed by a builder slightly less competent than the one currently scratching his head and mumbling “at least another six months, mate…” under the arch at the new Wembley stadium. Lampard and Ferreira were confused by the interplay between Riise and Gerrard and parted like a pair of moody teenagers; the ball sailed through the gap and left Cudicini completely stranded. 1-0 Liverpool and the ominous feeling that whatever we might think of them, the Red Scousers are very similar to Chelsea in that they don’t give up leads easily.
If the initial team selection had provided the surprise, the removal of Del Horno at half time was as predictable as the Liverpool fans singing about history. Ferreira to left back with Robben ahead of him. At the very least it looked a little more like a Chelsea team that might do some damage.
Within minutes the Dutchman looked to have made the difference. His free kick from the right was met by Terry who, temporarily using Riise as a piece of ginger scaffolding, headed the Blues level. But in his second crucial (and probably more accurate) decision of the game Poll indicated otherwise, with the relative lack of complaint from Terry and his team mates speaking volumes. A nagging doubt and the feeling that it might be one of ‘those’ days crept in.
Then as is the way of things, sod’s law struck the killer blow. Ferriera and Gallas both missed headers from a Liverpool throw which left Luis Garcia free to float the ball home from twenty yards. 2-0 Liverpool and the Double was rapidly becoming a single.
The line that divided the teams from there onwards was fairly thin. Mourinho removed Crespo and Geremi for Duff and Cole, switched to three at the back and finally went at Liverpool. Benitez countered and bizarrely made a change that aided Chelsea’s cause and on another day might have proved to be his undoing. The removal of the often maligned Peter Crouch for Djibril Cisse proved how valuable England’s beanpole is to Liverpool’s game. Cisse may have the pace to punish a team pushing forward, but without Crouch’s aerial presence, ability to retain possession and distribute to the midfield Liverpool found that their hopeful balls forward were coming back at an alarming rate.
With twenty minutes remaining and the pressure on Liverpool building, it was Riise’s turn to fluff a defensive header. Drogba beat Reina to the ball as it fell and nodded into an empty net. 2-1 with enough time left for us to hope; easily the worst thing about being a football fan in such situations.
With the injured Kewell replaced by Traore, Chelsea attacked in numbers for prolonged periods in search an equaliser and extra time. The dying seconds summed up the unpredictability of the FA Cup that makes it both fascinating and frustrating in equal measure. Robben chipped the ball into the box and found Joe Cole six yards out with the goal gaping; the collective breath was held only to be exhaled in frustration a split second later as Joe fired into the stands. Last season it was Gudjohnsen at Anfield, this year Cole at Old Trafford; game over.
The aftermath of the game provided more soundbites and sparring for the media to feast upon. Mourinho’s assertion that in the Premiership marathon Chelsea are Felix Limo to Liverpool’s Jade Goody is a fair one as there was little on display to suggest that the league table is inaccurate. The Benitez-driven Anfield renaissance may allow Liverpool to challenge for cups but over the course of the season they have fallen some way short of a credible title challenge, a fact that the Spaniard himself acknowledged.
While opposites attract, the similarity between the two managers might go some way to explaining the fractious atmosphere that develops when the two Iberians lock horns. Both are alike in terms of their cautious, thoughtful and often defensive football that is more about a hard work and a solid team ethic than flair and brilliant individuals. The reporting of football is built upon rivalries and grudges and the one between Mourinho and Benitez shows no sign of abating. With any luck there will be fewer meetings between the clubs next season, but this particular serial drama looks like it will run and run. If nothing else, it makes a change from Ferguson and Wenger.
In an attempt to summarise there was some truth in Jose’s assertion that on the whole missed chances had cost Chelsea, however bullishly he may have expressed the sentiment. But his one glaring error was simply that he chose to try and counter Liverpool’s strengths rather than play to his own. Quite why he abandoned the tactics that had seen Chelsea unbeaten and 6-1 up on aggregate against Liverpool in four meetings this season was near unfathomable.
Jose has long looked like a man in need of a holiday and his approach to the battle at Old Trafford means that he will be on the beach earlier than his Anfield counterpart. While he takes his well-earned break, he might consider that his Chelsea has the ability to play its own game and has done to great effect, often brushing aside the opposition irrespective of their tactical approach. Saturday may have been disappointing, as was the defeat to Barcelona but on the whole both he and his men have coped well with the unique pressures of spending a season in the firing line as champions defending their title. For all his protestations, the realisation must now have dawned that the football that wins you the league doesn’t always pay off in the cup competitions.
The season moves towards its conclusion with our final home game of the season against Manchester United. A point or better for the Blues will give us our second consecutive Premiership title and a lurch back to ecstasy on the ever-changeable Chelsea emotional barometer. Come midday at the Bridge on Saturday, the irritating nasal dentist’s drill whining of Gerrard and Carragher will be long forgotten. No trip to Cardiff? We’ll cope with the disappointment.