Remember the good old days? Remember the two consecutive seasons that we actually went through Christmas unscathed? Maximum points anyone?
Of course you do because they were the last two glorious years. Prior to these two glorious years, no matter who was at the reigns we would all rush headlong into the Christmas period blinded by our own optimism, convinced that this would be our year and that we would win all of the festive games and come out of the other side challenging the big boys at the top. In reality it never happened. Year in year out festive campaigns were fraught with performances from players who had apparently been out on the lash or had partaken in a few too many mince pies. It didn’t seem to matter how good the squad was, or who the manager was, it just seemed to be a curse of our club that we would snatch defeat from the jaws of victory during this vital period. With 4 games in 10 days the test was always a stiff one, but one that each of the hopefuls would have to negotiate with a degree of success if they were to achieve the goal of winning the Premiership. Sadly we were always the Christmas bridesmaid and never the bride.
When Roman Abramovich took over, the club entered its first festive campaign, debt free and laden down with explosive talents under the tutelage of the dignified but tactically clueless Claudio Ranieri. Hope sprung eternal as it had the previous year which had been dented severely by a Boxing Day hammering from Charlton Athletic, but again it was to no avail. That year was undoubtedly the single biggest transition period in the club’s rollercoaster history and ended with a Champions League semi-final and second place in the Premiership. Despite this it seemed that we would need a miracle to complete the necessary festive campaign to the required level in order to become champions. Of course, we all now know that Jose Mourinho came into the club and changed the very fabric of how the team thought and how the club was run. That first year of his would be memorable for so much, but not least of all for a 100% record over Christmas. For me this was probably the point at which I truly started to believe we could be champions.
So, let’s look at the festive campaign thus far for 2006/2007. My own comments to this blog on the result at Wigan were deemed by some to be rather scathing, and quite negative. Now let’s get one thing straight… I call it as I see it, and will not join in with blind unfounded optimism. I like to think my views are based in reality. I’ve experienced too much heartbreak over the years to unswervingly see the glass as half full all of the time. I pay good money to watch my team and as such reserve the right to be critical when I feel they are under performing. And Wigan was an under performance of overwhelming proportions. Yes, we won but it really was daylight robbery. I know a win is a win is a win, but the fact was the Wigan result bought out the faintest tinge of embarrassment for me that night, knowing in my heart of hearts that we had mugged a team that had for 45 minutes played more like a team than we had for weeks.
I pitched up at Stamford Bridge on Boxing Day, riding the back of the angry tiger known as my wife for deserting the family on this most family oriented of days. The Matthew Harding Lower Block 12 gang, including yours truly, were convinced we would see a performance from the team that would show the Wigan game as being no more than a blip. Deep down we all knew that the malaise of winning whilst playing badly had been the story for most of the season thus far. Reading were good however, better than we might have expected and showed that the tough game they gave us at the Madjeski Stadium was by no means a fluke. We seemed to slowly fall back into ourselves the more the game went on. It wasn’t really a case of two halves, one bad, one good… it was more a case of fits and starts type football. The confidence was slipping minute by minute in the second half and an air of nervousness was its replacement. Despite several good chances we could not get any real rhythm going. The experiment of Paulo Ferreira playing next to Ricardo Carvalho was inconclusive. The disjointed and fragmented style of play was such that when Reading equalized through a bit of Chelsea pantomime defending not too many of us were surprised. Such was the paucity of our second half display it’s hard to award a Man of the Match award to anyone else but Didier Drogba, who was not only the best striker on display, but also the best centre half. On leaving the Bridge you could almost taste the disappointment such are the expectations these days.
So, if one were to think that the Wigan and Reading displays were mere negative figments of over active imaginations then the Fulham game was a sharp reminder that the Ghost of Christmas Past is never too far away from the club. Although we haven’t felt the full force of his mystical powers, his influence is always there, lurking over the Bridge, causing uncertainty, doubt and trepidation amongst players and fans. In stark contrast to the high expectations of the Reading game, the mood in the car on the way into London was one of serious doubt as to whether we could beat Fulham – even Mr. Chelsea, a man so blinded by his Blue Faith to Chelsea that he does not possess a single red coloured item of anything in his entire life, seemed to accept that a draw was likely. I haven’t the heart to tell him the colour of his blood for fear of unleashing the wrath of a blue glass tinted psychopath. The MHL Block 12 gang seemed subdued and despondent as well, all predicting a narrow squeaky win or a draw.
Fulham didn’t disappoint and although the first half was more or less under our own control, the almost inevitable concession of an early goal seemed to highlight just how severe the sea change in our defensive capability had become. The fury in the MHL was almost tangible, with most of us blaming Geremi for going AWOL and Hilario for… well just not being good enough if we’re honest. He doesn’t command like Petr Cech or Carlo Cudicini and he seems indecisive and rooted to his line. This rubs off on the defence who feel obligated to try and cover everything to compensate for their subconscious distrust of our third choice/third rate ‘keeper. Getting in at half time at 1-1 seemed to draw a collective sigh of relief from the crowd, hope springing eternally again that if we carried on like that then there wouldn’t be a problem.
Except… I had noticed that the emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes that afternoon. Michael Ballack had once again done a convincing impression of someone turning up at Heathrow airport in a loud shirt, shorts, sandals and sunglasses. Geremi seemed determined to do a lot of hard work down the wing but then bugger things up by failing to cross beyond the first man. Claude Makelele was striving to prove my thesis that this is a season too far. His unfailing ability for giving away silly free kicks is no longer a joke and I’m wondering if there’s a Stepford like conspiracy going on courtesy of the new Arsenal Professor of Robotics, Arsene Wenger. Oh… and don’t even mention his inability to pass to anyone more than three yards away which was consistent throughout the game. The muted applause to his departure told a big big story. Salomon Kalou looked frankly ready for the knacker’s yard, but he’s young so I’ll put it down to tiredness and inexperience. There were bright parts though, Drogba again ran on every bit of the pitch like an ancient marauding warrior, If we go to war then bags I’m in his platoon! Frank Lampard, despite the uncomfortable burden of the captaincy carried Ballack everywhere, tackling and running and harrying the Fulham players. Ashley Cole continues to impress as does Carvalho, emulating Drogba by trying to be everywhere. Unfortunately this means he gets pulled out of position too easily because he doesn’t have a central partner he can trust, and hence leaves us vulnerable when under attack.
Despite Lampard’s link up play with Drogba for the second goal there didn’t seem to be much to write home about. Andriy Shevchenko came on and immediately looked a threat. Unlike Ballack, and despite wearing the bemused look of a beaten man, he keeps trying and fighting for the ball. He will come good before the end of the season, I’m sure of that. He has desire, whereas Ballack is on a beach somewhere. The equalizer from Fulham however came from a Shevchenko shove, which was unnecessary and the resulting free kick poorly defended. If you thought the Reading equalizer was pantomime, then this was pure farce as Michael Essien contrived to dip below the ball, Drogba did an air-shot even the most rookie golfer would have been ashamed at, and Ballack… well he merely tapped at the ball as if he was playing barefoot on gravel using a wooden ball… which in his mind may be the exact case. The result was inevitable despite Hilario’s brave attempt to keep the ball out. A real shocker. And so the Bridge was plunged back into muted silence as the most hardened realized that with eight minutes or so left we had snatched a draw from a winning position again, conceding our fourth duo of goals in consecutive games… a previously unheard of run under Jose Mourinho. In the remaining minutes we never got a shot on target, and truth be told Fulham could and should perhaps have carved out a winner in the dying seconds.
And so to Aston Villa. A venue we have been notoriously average at in previous seasons. Manchester United won 3-0 the other week at Villa Park, so what could we do? Well in the end we put in a slightly anodyne performance, with the team seemingly hell bent on stopping the rot of conceding goals. We could and should have scored at least once but seemed resigned to long range shots. Even the god-like Drogba missed an absolute sitter. I guess there was some real improvement, and the first priority was to regain a duck’s arse tightness at the back. Another injury concern in Khalid Boulahrouz, who had been turning in a very good and assured performance prior to having to come off. Reports suggest he might struggle to return by the Porto game in February, so if Mourinho was unsure about buying a centre back before, one assumes his mind will be changed by this unfortunate incident. Watching the game one couldn’t help feeling that a spark was still missing and there’s no doubt that spark would be re-ignited by the return of Arjen Robben. Joe Cole is also sorely missed as he is a player who can cause opponents problems with his cross field, two-footed ability and his inventiveness. I think if we’d had just one of those two available last night then a win may have been forthcoming.
As it is we exit the period with 6 points from a possible 12, a return that’s akin to the old days. It isn’t the form of champions and we aren’t playing like champions, but Mourinho is right that United must be very frustrated at the lead only being 6 points instead of 12 or more, considering how weak we’ve been lately. The Ghost of Christmas Past seems to have woven a spell on us once again but perhaps with the help of our Chief Exorcists in the shape of Abramovich’s cash and Mourinho’s transfer guile we can recruit at least one or two more warriors to help return the ship to its previous imperious course for glory. This is our first real blip under Mourinho and it sure will lead to some interesting times as we see how he deals with the challenge.