After the blanket coverage of Chelsea’s financial results (OK, overdraft) and a day of “Isn’t it scandalous?!” style comment from the media and numerous newly created experts on football finance (i.e. anyone with a grudge and a calculator), it was a welcome relief to sit back and contemplate that most basic of football pleasures; the prospect of a good old-fashioned FA Cup tie against Everton. As an added bonus, the game remained resolutely unmoved by TV schedules and kicked off at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon. A self-confessed fan of the FA Cup since childhood, Jose would surely have appreciated the traditional aspect of a fourth round game in the only domestic competition he has yet to win.
If the previous twenty-four hours had been about balance sheets and turnover, the game itself provided two elements more usually associated with football; blood and thunder. The lack of Beattie, Cahill and Yobo and some of the unfamiliar names on their bench didn’t seem to bother Everton who gave us little time on the ball in a first half display that looked lethargic even by our slow-starting standards. The home side gradually worked their way into the game as we passed the ball around without particularly threatening the Everton goal. The combination of a failure to impose ourselves and the lack of pressure on Everton in the passage of play leading up to their goal (especially galling after Ferguson and Valente had carved out a near-identical opportunity a minute earlier) would have undoubtedly led a good deal of thunder during Jose’s half time team talk. Del Horno again posed more questions than he answered in defence, but Glen Johnson produced a display that went some small way towards proving that he may have a future at Stamford Bridge despite reports to the contrary.
The blood on display was largely that of James McFadden following a challenge by Gallas, for which the Frenchman was booked and the Scot received eight stitches, and a collision with Cudicini that led to a broken nose for Everton’s scorer and his withdrawal from the game. His battle scars suggested that a cry of “Incoming wounded!” and treatment by Hawkeye and Trapper John might have been more appropriate than anything Everton’s medical staff could administer, but his attitude was typical of Everton’s spirit and a seven game unbeaten run which has eased the relegation worries that dogged David Moyes earlier this season.
With thirty minutes left to prevent the second domestic Cup exit of the season, a formation change with the double substitution of Carlton Cole and Duff for Del Horno and Maniche led to the now familiar second half Chelsea revival. The otherwise quiet Lampard came to the rescue once again with a well taken goal that gave us a deserved replay back at the Bridge next Wednesday. Aside of some wayward finishing (from Crespo in particular) Nigel Martyn was the difference for Everton; he produced the kind of display that veteran keepers seem to reserve for the days when Chelsea are in town. Everton are one of just three teams that haven’t succumbed to the Chelsea tide this season; this afternoon’s draw has given the winners of the replay a home tie against Colchester (currently beaten just once in twenty games since early October and lying in second place in League One) in the last sixteen.
A busy and important week now lies ahead of Jose and the boys, starting with a trip to Villa Park on Wednesday evening. The Blues haven’t won there in the league since Tore Andre Flo upset the church-going folk of the West Midlands early one Sunday morning several seasons ago, so a result is long overdue and essential if we are to maintain our grip on the Premiership title. Next Sunday sees arguably the most important Premiership game of the season so far; the visit of Liverpool. Following their last minute defeat at Old Trafford, the Red Scousers looked far from convincing against Portsmouth yesterday when edging their way to a 2-1 victory. The game presents Rafa Benitez with a tricky dilemma; a Champions League style shut-out is of no use if Liverpool still harbour any slim hopes of winning the title this season, whereas his previous attempt to play an open game against us led to a 4-1 thumping up at Anfield last October. It will be interesting to see how much the Spaniard says about the game over the coming week.
A quick browse through the weekend papers provided the usual misleading Chelsea related guff in amongst the acres of fevered “No more Johnny Foreigner, we want an Englishman! (even though there aren’t any decent ones available)” comment and debate upon who should replace Sven in the summer. But skewed reporting aside, sometimes you can’t legislate for your own bad PR; Peter Kenyon played into the hands of the club’s detractors by issuing a “stay away” warning to the FA with regard to potential approaches to Jose for the England post. It is difficult to do anything more than shrug and agree when accusations of hypocrisy are thrown about in the aftermath of a statement like that; pro-Chelsea this site may be but I’m sure I’m not the only Blue that wishes Mr. Kenyon would keep his feet away from his mouth in such instances.
Elsewhere in the media, a fine example of a good point badly made was Patrick Collins’ unsurprisingly biased and now near weekly anti-Chelsea ravings in The Mail On Sunday. He made much of Chelsea’s ticket prices and the recent stay-away protest by Charlton fans who objected to paying £48 to come to Stamford Bridge last week. His failure to mention that Chelsea fans had paid £45 to visit the Valley last season was presumably down to the ‘selective Alzheimers’ problem that seems to afflict so many journalists when reporting on all matters Chelsea.
But the overall point about ticket prices is a fair one if it isn’t presented as just another way to have a dig at the club. Bruce Buck’s rather embarrassing proclamation that people ‘would rather pay £45 to watch Chelsea than pay £25 to watch Spurs’ during Radio 5’s generally excellent Chelsea-a-thon last week skirted around an issue that affects far more people than the club seem prepared to admit. The noticeably younger (and generally sold out) crowds bought in by reduced prices for domestic Cup games compared to the swathes of empty seats on display for the game against Anderlecht tell their own story. Talk of increased capacity or a move to a bigger ground is inevitable if we are to compete financially rather than exist solely on handouts from our owner. Will a ‘SOLD OUT’ sign hang outside the proposed 50-60,000 capacity ground where a seat costs £50 (plus) for a televised midweek fixture against a Premiership struggler? Kenyon and Buck would probably spin an affirmative response backed by reams of marketing data; ask the Chelsea fan on an average salary with a mortgage to pay the same question and you might get a more pessimistic take on things. Quite which answer proves to be accurate in the long term remains to be seen.