What is it with our beloved Chelsea, penalties and the beautiful, if not chaotic and wild, Russian capital? The obvious connections with Roman Abramovich spring to mind, as if some unknown force has suddenly teamed up with all those people who believe having a rich owner appear out of nowhere and invest heavily in the team is nothing short of a felony, or even constitutes some twisted form of a crime against humanity. And yet it must be noted that his connections with Russia actually have very little to do with Moscow, where Chelsea played their pre-season friendly game against a once exciting and promising Lokomotiv Moscow (who under Juri Semin played some dazzling European-class football and fought very well with teams like Inter Milan and Real Madrid some years ago), a team sponsored by the Russian Railway Ministry – a very powerful organisation considering the sheer overall length of all the railway tracks in the world’s largest country (and the ever-growing train ticket prices…), which can easily afford to invite some of Europe’s best clubs to take part in a pre-season friendly tournament. And while the stakes weren’t as high as they were in May, both Chelsea and Loko had something to play for. Especially the Blues, since Luiz Felipe Scolari needs all the matches he can get before the season kicks off to adequately assess the squad he inherited from Avram Grant. Whereas for the Russian team, which unlike its European counterparts is in the middle of an action-packed season, it was a great chance to stabilise their spontaneous style of play and test their skills against the world’s best. Besides, it was under pressure Rashid Rakhimov’s (the Loko manager) first ever match against a Champions League team, which must have been an added incentive for the talented young manager, who used to be a fairly decent centre-back for the mighty Spartak Moscow.
Either way, the chilly August evening seemed perfect for the match and the atmosphere around the stadium was quite relaxed and friendly, unlike the Russian league match days, with some exclusive collectors’ merchandise, coupled with… seeds and nuts, sold for crazy prices (and absolutely no alcohol anywhere – the reason I missed the Milan – Sevilla match). There were some English fans I met on my way to the stadium who seemed to be having a great time and looking forward to a fairly easy game, and lots of young Loko fans, who are as harmless as stoned koalas even during some World War II-style Moscow derbies, but whose pre-puberty shrieks of “GO LOKO! GO!” can drive anyone absolutely mad (I was unlucky to end up sitting right next to a 12 year-old “fan” who might have given me an ear condition with his unorthodox style of supporting).
After a fairly sloppy warm-up session the match kicked off, with Chelsea fielding a very strong team and Loko opting for the younger players to give them an edge over the Blues and please the fans (could have saved the effort of playing and just given away free candy, if you ask me). Speaking of fans, I was very pleased with how organised and powerful the Chelsea fans were, despite being heavily outnumbered, impressing me and everyone else throughout the entire match with passionate chanting, singing, flag-waving and even the odd flare after we scored. So a huge amount of respect goes to everyone with a blue shirt on who attended the match! You made Chelsea proud!
The starting line-ups were as follows:
Lokomotiv: Pelizolli (GK), Yanbaev (Russian National Team), Spahic, Rodolfo, Fininho, Hurenko, Glushakov, Torbinsky (RNT), Drahman, Bilyaletdinov (RNT), Traore.
Two leading strikers – Sychev (RNT) and Odemwingie (former Lille player) – were not in the starting line-up and weren’t even used as substitutes. And it’s also worth noting Branislav Ivanovic also used to be a star player for the team.
Chelsea: Cech, Ferreira, Terry, Carvalho, A. Cole, Essien, Mikel, Lampard, Deco, J. Cole, Anelka.
The first half left a two-sided impression. On the one hand, Chelsea controlled the ball really well (63% – 37% possession at half-time) and seemed to be at least trying to play the style of football Roman so heavily craves, yet we were certainly lacking that vital edge in attack (perhaps due to the absence of Drogba). Anelka wasn’t a handful for Loko’s defenders and the French striker always tended to drift away from the penalty box, so the few crosses we had posed absolutely no threat to Pelizolli. Deco – a player I didn’t value much – was very good, always looking for ways to advance the attack and trying all kinds of through balls, looking very much fired up for the game. I don’t know if van der Vaart would have been a better choice, but we certainly have a great attacking player who’s always a potential danger to the opposition. The flanks didn’t work quite as well as I’d expected, with Joe Cole not doing much at all, though his namesake compensated for that with some nice runs down the left wing. Ferreira wasn’t as good, and if not for the totally abysmal display by Malouda, he would have been my choice for the Worst Player award. The Portuguese rarely threatened the opposition and when the opposition (even more rarely) threatened him, he seemed to have been lacking in confidence and composure. Good thing we have Bosingwa and Ivanovic, though I’m not sure why Scolari didn’t give either of them a chance today. Mikel is not Makelele yet, and there were moments today when he could have done much better, missing a couple of interceptions and misplacing some tackles. He also could have been sent off (as usual) for a reckless challenge, which could have been avoided had he not fumbled on a perfectly acceptable long ball, giving Drahman a chance to go one-on-one with Cech. Lampard was his usual self, I was actually very glad to see him playing with the same attitude as before after all the transfer speculation. Whatever happens, at least he’s shown himself as a true professional. Overall, I think Lampard and Deco can work really well together, with Ballack behind them. As for the defence, there’s nothing much I can say, since Loko were so poor going forward. Terry can still outrun pretty much any mediocre player and, what’s more important, he was a true captain in a couple of instances, having a tough word (don’t know if the cameraman got it) with Mikel and someone else over something that could have led to a goal. And Carvalho was commanding as always.
Nothing much happened in terms of goal opportunities, with Loko absolutely clueless in that department and Chelsea not knowing how to convert their dominance into goals. Loko had an odd long ball chance when Cech went too far away from the goal, which might have been due to boredom, but I think he kept everything under control. Chelsea had a couple of chances, when Deco was left absolutely alone during a corner kick (poor man-marking by Loko), but the Brazilian’s shot went wide. Anelka was trying hard, adopting a nomadic style of play, and it paid off in the end when his chest flick-on was converted into a goal by the impressive Essien, whose rocket-powered left-footed shot blazed through Pelizolli’s hands, leaving the entire Russian team wondering what hit them. It was a perfect way to start a potential thrashing of the utterly unimpressive host team, and everyone was looking forward to an action packed second half.
With Wright-Phillips coming on for Joe Cole and Malouda replacing Mikel for the second half, Chelsea should have had the final edge over Loko, utilising the flanks and thus leaving their shattered defence even in more trouble. And it kind of worked… At least Wright-Phillips was trying very hard, fighting for every ball and always being in a good position. Malouda seemed less enthusiastic and struggled to make an impact. The thrashing didn’t happen. Loko started the second half really well, creating a number of half chances and trying to regain possession, but Chelsea’s star-studded defence was clearly too much for their young players to handle. Chelsea were perfectly content with the way the second half started, trying to hit Loko on the break, instead of keeping possession. It would have paid off had Essien, Anelka and Wright-Phillips converted their chances into goals, instead leaving the fans amazed at the fact that Chelsea didn’t score when it was quite clearly easier to do so than to miss. Three times. I have to give credit to Loko’s defence where it’s due. Despite them panicking and being out of position they somehow managed to prevent Anelka from scoring, and Pelizolli made a marvellous save when Essien could have got his second of the match. Wright-Phillips received a perfect pass leaving him one-on-one with the Italian goalkeeper, yet he managed to miss the goal altogether. Malouda took part in a couple of these chances, but overall his display was quite poor, and Yanbaev had no problem blocking his crosses and making a mediocre player out of him. Deco wasn’t as impressive as in the first half, and in general Chelsea gave up on trying to advance through the centre of the field, opting for the wings instead, which didn’t quite pay off because Anelka was never there for the header, there weren’t any dangerous crosses, and Loko’s right-backs were quite adequate at keeping our wingers away.
Loko, on the other hand, while not having a clue as to what to do, were doing their best to at least wake Cech up and at times seemed to cause some sort of panic among our defenders, especially Ferreira. Essien did very well in the holding midfielder role, not putting a foot wrong, and Ashley Cole was very impressive throughout the match, but for some reason attacked less, and with Malouda not doing much either, Chelsea’s left wing was of no threat to Loko. Despite the match being, well, a friendly, I can remember three instances of the game being stopped to give medical aid to a player, and the funny little car was cheered by the fans every time it had to drive onto the pitch (and watching it trying to drive back to its parking space was perhaps one of the better parts of the match). Time flew by, Chelsea not converting their chances into goals (Shevchenko came on for Anelka and had a decent chance but his header went wide) and Loko trying desperately to at least make a shot on goal, until the 84th minute, when Kambolov scored a perfect free kick sending the Loko fans into raptures. I personally saw it coming, since Cech was a bit out of position in my opinion, and Kambolov didn’t have to do anything fancy, just taking a very well-placed right-corner shot which went into the net after hitting the post. Surely Cech could have saved it easily, having set up a nice solid wall which no one at Loko would have even dared to bend over (no pun intended)?! Thus the legendary rule of “If you don’t score, the opposition will” manifested itself yet again, the rest of the match being as boring as watching grass grow.
Then came Chelsea’s worst nightmare: the penalty shoot-out, which was a surprise for me, I must admit… I was expecting Chelsea to regain their pride and demolish Loko in added time. Instead, all of us had to experience the same tragedy we experienced not long ago (OK, so this wasn’t a Champions League final, but still…). Of course, it started well. Cech revealed his hair to all of us once more and finished off Bilyaletdinov’s unimpressive display with a nice save, adding to the speculation that the young Russian might not be as good as everyone thinks he is. After that, it was a master class of penalties and an array of frustrating experiences for both goalkeepers until Bridge, who replaced Ashley Cole and did fairly well, stepped up to take the penalty. I don’t know why, but lefties don’t seem to do all that well in penalty shoot-outs, or maybe it’s just a coincidence. Either way, Pelizolli made a superb save to deny Bridge a top-right-corner finish. Loko coolly scored their penalty, and Shevchenko… What can I say, the poor unlucky bastard, who received a warm welcome from the Russian fans, took a shot right at the centre of the goal, making it easy for Pelizolli, already airborne and flying to his right, to make a save with his foot and book Loko a place in the final, where they’ll play against Sevilla. Why a professional striker with a 130k p/w salary couldn’t spare me the agony of walking along with hundreds of crazy and happy Loko fans shouting obscene things about Chelsea, is beyond me… Oh well, maybe next time?
The bottom line is… This should have a been a fairly straight forward match review of a nice relaxed pre-season friendly, where we got to see all our new players and some great goals. Instead, it turned into something that some of us will try to forget, but the reality is that Chelsea themselves should not think of this as a mere friendly match and really examine and work on the problems that led to this defeat. After all, it’s the fifth, if I remember correctly, penalty shoot-out defeat in a row. We all call it a lottery, but it seemed to have turned into a tendency for us, being anything but random. I was impressed with some players, Ferreira and Malouda left me disappointed, hopefully we have a replacement for both of them (and let Malouda join Roma), Wright-Phillips tried hard and was fairly productive but wasteful, Anelka needed a striking partner, and I’m not sure how well he’ll fair in the playing like that. The Ukrainian is useless, we all know that. I almost can’t remember anything Joe Cole did, but he’s certainly a great player and much better than Malouda on the left. Mikel is far away from being as good as Makelele, and Scolari should really use Essien as an anchorman. The defence, especially Ashley Cole, did well, but considering how little Loko were capable of, I guess it doesn’t mean much, but Cech left me disappointed on a couple of occasions, bringing to mind his antics at the Euros.
Today is Chelsea’s open training session and on Sunday we’ll play against Milan. Hopefully they’ll provide enough incentive for all the players to do their best and win the Russian Railways Cup third place award. Now how cool is that, eh?
Or maybe it was yesterday’s sun eclipse that drained our luck yet again? We’ll never know…