Apologies for the weak pun but the temptation to indulge in Bond-style headlines has been too great given recent events; with Special Agent Jose already annoying the nation’s non-Chelsea contingent by leaping across rooftops and staring down from billboards with his Samsung mobile that doubles as a plastic explosives detonator and radar jamming device (probably), the weeks following our first consecutive defeats of the Mourinho era have seen the Chelsea soap opera become a fully-fledged spy thriller. There has been sufficient material for Le Carré to produce an espionage masterpiece with enough sub-plots left over to keep Daniel Craig in exotic blondes and Aston Martins until well into the next decade; the media have wasted no time in casting Roman as the mysterious Blofeld-esque villain, complete with hit squads and pools of hungry pet sharks to deal with those who fail him in his quest for world domination.
The background noise of the Cold War between West and North London provided an amusing distraction in the build-up to the United game. Jose boasted of his weighty dossier on a rather tenacious French agent named Wenger; handbags were swung and lawyers were mentioned but the saga fizzled out and became as crap and embarrassing as one of Henry’s goal celebrations (Pretentious? Moi?). Expect hostilities to recommence at some point prior to our last-ever league visit to Highbury on December 18; the title race once pronounced over and boring is apparently back on now that Arsenal have managed to win away from home.
Back amongst Jose’s foot soldiers, presumably to console himself after the defeats to Betis and United Agent Terry foolishly dropped his guard (well, trousers actually) and drove his luxurious Bentley straight into a Mata Hari style honey trap; the young lady — and I use the term loosely having seen the pictures — proving in no way predictable by taking her secrets and lurid text messages to the Sun, along with some sort of feeble “I told him I wasn’t a slapper like the other girls — it was tits first or nothing…” style defence of her honour. A schoolboy error there JT; stick to making headlines on the back pages and leave those classy ladies and all the front page hysteria that follows them to Wayne “Six Minutes” Rooney as he should now be known.
Then came the mystery of the bugged dressing room; the second embarrassing recording to have come from Old Trafford in as many weeks after Roy Keane’s “Play the Pundit” suicide note for MUTV. Fergie’s pre-match speech was apparently inspirational; the United players cheered his post-match interview and jeered Jose’s. All top secret earth-shattering stuff then, but it provided excitement for a few that hoped there was something far more dark and disturbing about the affair; a couple of Arsenal supporting acquaintances put two and two together and came up with seven, contacting me to point out that we’d gone too far this time and surely only a points deduction could stop us and our evil plans for ruining football. If nothing else you have to admire their optimism; conspiracy theories always seem to follow teams that win for some strange reason.
What really sent the football world into overdrive was Roman’s KGB style interrogation team that allegedly arrived at the club’s training facility to ask probing questions about our sudden dip in form (you can’t help but wonder how busy they’d have been a few years ago); Sky Sports News even took the hilarious step of pixelating the faces of some chaps in suits who turned up at Cobham that day, adding an air of sinister drama to a story which was already about as far-fetched as a Peter Crouch hat-trick. Jose reacted in his own inimitable style by canceling press conferences, thus starving the media of any juicy pre-game quotes which only added to speculation about a hissy-fit from The Special One.
Intrigue and subterfuge aside, what could have been a difficult game against Newcastle on Saturday immediately started to look more promising on arrival at the Bridge; no Shearer and no Owen which left the less-than-prolific Shola Ameobi up front with support from the ever-punchable Lee Bowyer. Glen Johnson came in at right back complete with bandaged hand; Gallas dropped to the bench as did Essien and Crespo started in place of the banned Drogba.
Newcastle’s midfield included former Chelsea boy Scott Parker who was industrious and efficient, but despite arriving with a point to prove he could not stamp his authority on a Chelsea midfield worryingly robbed of Makelele’s presence in the early stages; doubly frustrating as he was the architect of his own downfall with a high tackle on his former team-mate which has ruled him out of at least the next two games. An unusually poor first half performance from Terry was illustrated by his mistimed tackle which sent Bowyer sprawling in the box, albeit slightly theatrically; the unpredictable Mark Halsey surprised the entire ground by waving the appeals for a penalty away — probably the wrong decision but we were happy to take a slice of the luck which had deserted us in recent weeks.
The policy of containment worked well for Newcastle in the first half but as so many have found to their cost, trying to stifle Chelsea for ninety minutes is a game plan that fails more often than it succeeds (more of which later); having seen the Blues virtually gifted a two goal lead in the space of five second half minutes, Graeme Souness must have wished for a trapdoor to open beneath the walking defensive error that is Titus Bramble and dump him into Roman’s shark pool. Two mistakes allowed Eidur to set up Joe Cole for his fifth goal of the season and Crespo celebrated his deft strike like a man who looked perfectly happy with his lot contrary to recent reports. Duff’s late deflected third gave the final score a flattering feel, but a clean sheet and a win after a testing couple of weeks were both most welcome. Frank Lampard equaled David James’s consecutive appearance record; a fantastic achievement which was marked by a quiet but effective performance from the most reliable player in the Premier League. Of his achievement, he remarked with typical modesty that “sometimes more has been said of it than I feel about it.”
Jose reappeared from the murk of his self-imposed media blackout after the game; he praised man of the match Joe Cole (that’s the Joe Cole who would waste away on the Chelsea bench, Â© lots of experts circa summer 2003) and repeated his assertion that we would win our second consecutive Premiership title on the final day of the season at St. James’s Park, adding enigmatically that pressure was millions of parents struggling to feed their children rather than a couple of defeats in a row. Business as usual then.
It should be noted that our domestic defeats since Mourinho’s arrival have all been remarkably similar; Manchester City and their red neighbours in the league, Newcastle and Liverpool in the cup competitions — all have grabbed a one goal lead early in the game and hung on as though their lives depended on it. This currently looks like the only real weakness that we have and rather than being the mythical system Rafa Benitez claimed he had discovered for playing Chelsea it seems more to do with reliance on the law of averages and good luck than astute tactical thinking. The stats suggest that hanging on is exactly what teams have to do when they score against us in the first half of a league game; eight goals for to seven conceded in the opening forty-five minutes with twenty-three goals scored and none conceded in the second half so far this season.
Our European campaign takes us to Anderlecht on Wednesday which is followed by a trip to the hospitable surroundings of Portsmouth’s Fratton Park next Saturday; the former have just lost their first league fixture of the season to Westerlo (sometime home of Joe Keenan) and the latter could be searching for a new manager by the time we arrive if speculation is to be believed. After a rocky patch three wins to take us into December — arguably the most important month in our title-winning campaign last season which started with a win against Newcastle — would be ideal.