I haven’t seen us play better this season than we did on Wednesday night against Napoli. Second half every single player did well – even Malouda and Bosingwa. For me, however, the match was really won by Drogba. He was back to his infuriating best: one moment monstering their central defenders, the next scoring with a diving header, and the next falling down clutching his face looking for free kicks. To win 4-1 against a very good Napoli side and to play for two hours with that intensity makes me proud to be a Chelsea fan.
And it is plain to me that the 4-2-3-1 formation with Mata playing in the middle (for which I have been arguing all season) is the way to go and Robbie Di Matteo scores a brownie point for enforcing that and for re-motivating the players. I really don’t buy this tabloid nonsense about ‘player power’ causing Villas-Boas’ downfall; the man did enough all by himself to create that. But what we are now seeing is players who before were playing without spirit under someone who was micro-managing every move have now been given the licence to play the way they can. And there is a directness and force to our attacking play rather than that endless series of boring side-steps and backward passes. I predicted last October on this blog that Clouseau wouldn’t last until May and although I am a bit worried that the reconstruction plan has been halted with no plan B in sight I am just so fucking relieved that he has gone.
But a cautionary note is in order. If Napoli had taken just one more of the numerous chances they created we would have been out. We still look fragile in defending from between defence and midfield against quick ball-players (don’t ask me why) and we will be tested hard in Lisbon against a very slick passing Benfica side, and by Barcelona if we get that far.
Leicester City have to be taken seriously after they knocked out Norwich at Carrow Road in the previous round. They play a very typical Championship game: 4-4-2 with a big man up front (David Nugent) knocking down headers for his counterpart, Jermaine Beckford, to run on to. But they have been very inconsistent in their results recently, winning two and losing two and on an ordinary day there is no reason why we shouldn’t win handsomely. The main problem, from where I am sitting, is: will our players be too knackered to give a good account of themselves? To counter that difficulty I am expecting Robbie to rotate the squad players
There is previous between our two clubs in this competition. Readers with longish memories may recall the FA Cup 5th round replay in 1997 which was going to penalties with the score 0-0 right at the end of extra time. Then dear old Erland Johnsen managed to fall over in the penalty area, giving Frank Lebouef an easy penalty conversion. What was even more enjoyable following that was watching Martin O’Neill having an apoplectic fit over the referee and throwing his water bottle on the pitch. We went on to win it, of course, with Robbie scoring THAT goal in the final and Eddie Newton the second.
I expect Leicester to copy Birmingham: park the bus and hope to frustrate us enough to earn at least a draw. For that reason I also expect it to be close.
As I suspected realism has won out and Di Matteo makes seven changes to the team that started on Wednesday. Good to see Ryan Bertrand in for Ashley Cole while Mikel, Meireles and Kalou all come in with Torres replacing Drogba.
Team: Cech, Bosingwa, Ivanovic, Cahill, Bertrand, Mikel, Meireles, Sturridge, Mata, Kalou, Torres.
Substitutes: Hilario, Luiz, Essien, Lampard, Drogba, Malouda, Ferreira.
The first half
I quickly realize that I have got it wrong: Leicester have come here to play and are making a decent fist of it too with some swift passing and movement. The problem is that this sets them up for us to take full advantage. Mikel has a superb game breaking up play and setting in motion some quick counter-attacks. Bosingwa and Bertrand are pressing up quickly and early passes forward from the backs, Mikel and Meireles, are releasing Torres, Mata and Sturridge into the danger zones. The result is that we have eight shots on target in that first 25 minutes.
Fernando is having a superb game, with tricky runs up the wings and in the box, assists to other players, while taking two decent chances for himself. One is a header that is saved on the line and the other a snap shot that Kaspar Schmeichel does brilliantly to keep out.
On 11 minutes Fernando’s trickery wins a corner and Mata places it right on Cahill’s head, who scores his first goal for Chelsea. And I really do think he has been a good acquisition for us and the bonus is that he scores quite a few goals for a central defender. I also liked the fact that he lifted up his shirt to reveal a ‘Pray 4 Muamba’ message for his old team-mate on his undergarment. Good bloke, him.
Four minutes later we are 2-0 up. Torres is sent away again up on the right-hand side and from the edge of the box he sets up Kalou with a square pass. Salomon thinks about it for a moment and then abruptly turns and rolls a slow, slide shot beyond Schmeichel. Kalou has been driving me nuts so far because he constantly loses possession and then he scores. But that’s Salomon for you.
We spend another ten minutes creating a stream of goal opportunities playing around their defence in the final third with Juan Mata at the centre of most things. We could easily have been 4-0 up but Sturridge wastes two or three of them with poor decisions and Schmeichel is keeping out Torres.
Then we go to sleep and in the last 20 minutes the momentum passes to Leicester. Gary Cahill contrives to make amends for his goal by falling over while moving up with the ball in our half, is robbed by Danns (their best player today by some distance), who moves up himself with a rocket shot which is kept out by another world-class save from Cech. There is only 31 minutes on the clock and this looks like a classic FA Cup tie and full credit to Leicester for that. Leicester create two other good opportunities as we fade for a bit but they, like Napoli, lack both luck and incisiveness when it really counts.
Half-time: Chelsea 2 Leicester City 0.
The second half
Malouda comes on for Mata, which is not that surprising as Juan had gone very quiet at the end of the first half and I am reminded how tired Sturridge, Ivan and Mata in particular must be. A thought that gives room for some charitable reflections on Daniel’s relatively poor second half performance for us.
One thing I have noticed since Villas-Boas’ departure is that we play with a lot more simplicity and direct intent, moving the ball up quickly to Malouda in the middle, or to Kalou or Torres on the left and Sturridge on the right. Meireles did piss me off a bit when he seemed to be sulking during the Birmingham match but he is having a good game today with his quick passing up field.
Unfortunately, our quick passing game does have a downside and that is that we frequently lose possession and the first 20 minutes is a bit of a ding-dong with Leicester and ourselves exchanging counter-attacks. Great for the neutral to watch but not for a bipolar Chelsea fan and I suddenly remember that match in 1998 when Leicester came from 2-0 down to force a draw after a howler from Duberry. Which meant our title challenge was holed in the water for good that season. And, sure enough, I thought that Leicester had scored on 62 minutes when Danns’ shot seemed to be going in but it was inches wide.
A minute later Essien comes on for Kalou. No surprises there as Sal has done very little except score his goal (if you count that as ‘little’). Michael goes across to take Meireles’ place as a holding midfielder, who moves up to take Mata’s position in the ‘hole’ with Malouda moving out left. But I have to say, Essien does little to justify sending him on and turns out to be a liability with his piss-poor passing and sluggish running.
But that tactical change has one immediate effect in that Meireles starts finding Torres with his passes, who looks more and more dangerous as the second half goes on. It takes just four minutes for us to set up Fernando with his first goal in five months. First Mikel breaks up a Leicester attack in their half and passes to Sturridge who sets up Meireles on the wing and his cross-pass is rolled in by the blond bombshell. Stamford Bridge goes crazy and every Chelsea player is lining up for a snog with him afterwards. Brought tears to my eyes that did.
On 75 minutes Ivan finally goes off after running something like twelve miles in four days and is replaced by David Luiz. I don’t know whether that is because Leicester have been looking more and more like they might score but then they do anyway two minutes later. Essien plays another crap pass that goes nowhere and lets in Danns who strides forward and whacks it against the post. And Beckford powers in the rebound. Like Peter Osgood, he has scored in every round so far. An omen?
Subjectively I start worrying about what might happen if it goes to 3-2 and it almost does, twice, as Luiz almost lets in Beckford for one chance and from the corner their defender heads just over. I keep trying to calm myself with the thought that we are not quite as calamitous as we were in the 70s and 80s but it doesn’t quite work.
But then Fernando comes to the rescue with – wait for it – his second goal of the match. First he is put through on the left and his shot from the edge of the penalty area is parried away and from the resulting corner from Meireles his header glances into the far corner. Our supporters go bonkers again and it’s great to see Fernando applauding them after each of his goals.
Two minutes later and Marshall scores the goal of the match but you have to wonder why he was allowed the time and space to score it. He really should have been shadowed by Essien but – credit to him – he scores from 30 yards out with a dipping shot that flies past Cech, who can do nothing but watch it go past.
But a minute later we are three up again and, again, that is down to the Torres-Meireles combination. Di Matteo’s direct tactics pay off once more and Fernando is released on the left with a long ball. His trickery takes him past four players before he unselfishly (Sturridge please take note) releases the ball for Meireles to pass into the net.
Full time: Chelsea 5 Leicester City 2.
- We’ve got our Chelsea back.
- Fernando Torres was our Man of the Match with a complete and outstanding performance.
- Roberto Di Matteo. Four wins out of four. Thanks, Robbie. You too, Eddie.
- John Obi Mikel. My other Man of the Match.
- Goals. Nine in two matches. Good God and the dark miasma that was Villas-Boas seems to have evaporated for good.
- Leicester City. Great fans (6000 of them, silly hats and all, and singing loudly to the end). Good team, decent players and worthy opponents.
- Into the semi-finals at Wembley with a potential tie against the Spurts. Oh joy!
- Fabrice Muamba is still critically ill. Please recover soon young man.
- We still look way too clumsy when defending.
- Kalou and Sturridge. Watch out lads or you will be first on the list for the Summer Clearance Bargain Sales.
The press reports
The Daily Telegraph, Henry Winter: “Not since Oct 19 against Genk had Torres found the mark for Chelsea. Winter had come and gone. The trees had shed and regained their leaves. Even the protesters had come and gone outside St Paul’s. Torres was risking rivalling “The Mousetrap’’ for London runs. Then, like London buses, two goals came along at once and the blond-streaked Spaniard was smiling again.”
The Guardian, David Hytner: “The T-shirts are on their way to the printers. “I was there when Fernando Torres scored.” After what can only be described as a hard day’s night, Chelsea’s £50m striker finally ended his goal drought. It had passed the 24-hour mark in Wednesday’s Champions League epic against Napoli and the number-crunchers had it at 25 hours and 41 minutes when Raul Meireles broke forward and crossed for him.”
The Independent, Glenn Moore: “Torres had been scoreless for 25 hours and 41 minutes’ play, plus more than an hour’s worth of injury time, when he ran onto Raul Meireles’s pass yesterday and scuffed a 10-yard shot past the off-balance Kasper Schmeichel. Team-mates ran the length of the pitch to congratulate him, and the Spaniard looked like a man who had been relieved of a great burden.”
The Official Chelsea FC Website: “A wonderful week for the Blues is capped with the side securing our fourth FA Cup semi-final in three years [sic] after a 5-2 victory.”