After a relatively gloomy week by our standards, the entertaining if slightly nervy win over Blackburn was a welcome boost and a poke in the eye for the circling vultures who were eagerly awaiting the demise of our thirty-nine game unbeaten league run. The highlights of the weekend’s other games provided further entertainment; great goals including superb efforts from Portsmouth’s Matthew Taylor and a rejuvenated Michael Owen being the pick of the bunch. Amusement came courtesy of some truly hilarious defending; Sunderland’s Alan Stubbs assuming the character of a Sunday league player still feeling the effects of a heavy Saturday night, Paul Robinson’s generous assist for Robert Pires in the North London derby and most amusingly Rio Ferdinand’s own personal Groundhog Day at the Riverside (ably supported by the usually reliable Edwin van der Sar) as the wheels spectacularly fell off the already stuttering United bandwagon. Ronnie Barker may no longer be with us but great comedy is alive and well and living in many Premiership defences.
Mocking aside, the truth is that we weren’t too far away from joining the Comedy Hall of Shame in terms of self-inflicted grief this weekend ourselves. Carvalho’s careless lunge and the resultant penalty were followed by Del Horno’s rash back pass which was unconvincingly sliced away by Cech, allowing Blackburn back into the game after they looked dead and buried at 2-0 down inside the first fifteen minutes. In the incredulous silence that followed Bellamy’s equaliser, the Ghosts of Chelsea Past could be heard rattling their chains somewhere in the distance.
Thankfully we are made of far sterner stuff these days and our second half pressure told; a Lampard-inspired performance saw a previously organised and hard-working Blackburn side lose their way and revert to type, gathering five yellow cards with Mark Hughes being asked to make his way to the stands after a display of frustration too many for a slightly over-zealous fourth official. But it was plain for all at the Bridge to see; at times we looked uncertain at the back and had either Kuqi or Dickov taken their chances with the score at 4-2, we might well be heading to Spain with a little more doubt in our minds and being a good deal more thankful for Crespo’s winner at Wigan on the opening day.
The cornerstone of last season’s record breaking title win was as simple as Ranieri’s tactical substitutions were bewildering; we had a defence that didn’t concede. After injury sidelined Carvalho during the 2-2 draw at Highbury in December, Jose paired Terry and Gallas together at the heart of the back four which led to a surreal run and one of the most amazing statistics in a record-filled season; ten games and almost three months without conceding a goal in the league — a truly remarkable feat. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but whilst most Chelsea fans were biting their nails and observing every superstitious tradition in the book until the final whistle went at the Reebok on April 30th, it would have taken a collapse of incredible proportions to blow our chances after a period of more than nine hundred minutes without hearing the opposition fans celebrate once.
The Terry / Gallas pairing was nigh-on untouchable, had more natural chemistry than the periodic table and was as miserly as the Hasselbaink / Gudjohnsen partnership was prolific. As is understandable for the English game and those who comment upon it, the majority of the superlatives and plaudits are showered upon Terry; his presence and intuitive reading of the game, lion heart, qualities as a leader and sheer will to win are almost universally recognised by fans from even the bitterest of rivals and pundits alike. Such is the strength of our squad that a Terry / Carvalho partnership would probably be an instant first choice almost anywhere in European football; Carvalho himself is an excellent player for who Sir Alex would surely give his last case of Petrus to have given the form of the expensive comedian loitering without intent in his back four, but the statistics tell us that our captain is even more effective when the Frenchman plays alongside him.
Why? The ever-present Gallas is the quiet, calm and intelligent force which complements Terry’s commanding blood-and-thunder leadership perfectly, but most importantly his game has everything; the pace and guile to deal with the speed and invention of Henry coupled with the physical presence and temperament to cope with the elbows and terrier-esque snapping of the likes of Dickov. As if being a world-class centre back isn’t enough he is also one of the best full backs in the league; there are surely very few defenders that are as astute, versatile or consistently reliable playing in European football at the moment. Last season Gallas picked up just three yellow cards (two of these coming in Champions League games) in forty-six appearances for Chelsea — nothing short of incredible for a defender. Allegedly taunted in the past whilst on international duty by the Arsenal contingent for his lack of medals, there can have been few who deserved and enjoyed our title winning season more than Billy.
Makelele is often dubbed the unsung hero of the current Chelsea side, but I’d argue that Gallas and his low profile fall equally into the same “virtually irreplaceable” category. We can only hope that the current impasse in his negotiations with the club over a new deal are resolved shortly and that he stays at Chelsea for the remainder of his career. If Ferdinand is “worth” £120,000 per week then Gallas’s new contract should make Roman glad that he liquidated a few billion pounds worth of assets recently; his continued presence in the squad is unquestionably priceless.
Returning to the subject of great comedy the most bizarre story of the week is that of Tony Wood, a Tottenham obsessed scriptwriter on ITV’s long-running soap “Coronation Street”. In a highly amusing spot of social engineering, characters and entities named after Spurs legends past and present have started appearing in the programme’s scripts; recent examples including a headmaster named Mr. Defoe, a firm of solicitors called Robinson, Jones, Greaves & Allen and a butcher’s shop called Blanchflower’s (surely Tarrico’s would be more appropriate?), presumably with any references to either Chelsea or Arsenal being about as welcome as a bout of bird flu. He states that his only regret is that he can’t include characters named Ardiles and Hoddle for fear of being too obvious. Heaven forbid.
Whilst I’m not particularly a ‘Corrie’ fan, I might just start watching to see if Mr. Wood can work in some form of bizarre grainy black and white flashback sequence in which a very youthful Ken Barlow celebrates Spurs last title win by retiring to his room, cranking up the latest Everly Brothers single on his Dansette and having a furtive thumb through a copy of “Health & Efficiency”. As a Chelsea fan apparently I wouldn’t know, but it must be great to have some history.
And so to Seville and the second of our Champions League ties with Real Betis, who are sure to be a different proposition on their home turf to the side so ruthlessly dismantled at the Bridge a couple of weeks ago; a win would guarantee us a place in the knockout stage of the competition next February with the game against Liverpool in December looking like the fixture that will decide who tops the group and theoretically avoids a game with the big guns.
I wonder if Arsene will be watching through his telescope?