The arrival of a whale in West London caused something of a stir over the weekend; possibly a pre-ordered buffet for all the Japanese tourists at Stamford Bridge, as one wag suggested to me. But after our third encounter with them this season, Charlton’s trip down the Thames proved rather more successful than that of the confused mammal. An entertaining one-all draw ended the only perfect home record in English football, although results elsewhere did little to halt our march towards a second Premier League title.
Despite dominating the first half in terms of possession, other than Gudjohnsen’s bundled effort from Duff’s corner after nineteen minutes and Lampard’s overhead goal of the season attempt, the Blues’ flaccid attack looked as though it could have done with some of the stiffening medication endorsed by the visiting Pelé. Charlton’s second half performance asked more questions than we had answers for; whilst the equaliser was a poor goal to concede, the visitors deserved a point and could have left with more had Cech not saved a low shot from the impressive Darren Ambrose late on. Jose’s post-match analysis was spot on; the suggestion that we ‘lacked intensity’ speaking volumes about a lacklustre display that proved complacency does creep in to even the most well-drilled and disciplined sides.
Whilst the absence of any credible end product in the first half was the key factor in our failure to win for the first time in forty-two games after taking the lead, the linesman’s flag and the twelve offside calls given against us certainly didn’t help; the home crowd made it clear that the whale wasn’t the only disoriented mass of blubber to be seen floundering in London this weekend. A poor show by the officials, replays proving that at least three of the decisions were incorrect. The dismissal of someone — Carvalho being eventually the arguably undeserving victim ten minutes from the final whistle — seemed almost inevitable. Two harsh red cards in the space of a week for a team that had previously received none this season arguably says more about the officials than it does the team.
On a positive note, the introduction of loan signing Maniche in the second half provided our midfield with a much-needed spark; his quick, effective passing despite an obvious lack of match fitness bodes well for the arduous run towards the end of the season. With Essien still to return and the addition of the Portuguese international, there may even be scope to give the rather jaded looking Lampard a rest.
Charlton already look likely to be the most successful team to visit the Bridge this season; a point and a cup knockout is far more than most are likely to leave with. Alan Curbishley spoke a great deal of sense in suggesting that it was the fault of the challengers that Chelsea are so far ahead of United, Liverpool and Arsenal, but was oddly subdued about the creditable performance given by his team, possibly mindful that Charlton have gained just ten points in the league since their Carling Cup shoot-out triumph back in October. In comparison with the seven we have dropped all season, it might not be too harsh to paraphrase Old Blue Eyes in suggesting that we (almost) spill more than they drink. Curbishley’s achievements in turning Charlton from a yo-yo side into a credible Premiership team are well documented, but the difference between his mid-table men and possible UEFA Cup qualifiers like Bolton often seems to be little more than self-belief in their ability to challenge the largely mediocre looking pack outside of the top four.
With the gap at the top temporarily extended to seventeen points, the focus turned to the “Who’s second best?” clash at Old Trafford. In what can only be described as a truly dreadful game, United left it late to edge themselves to a 1-0 victory, but as with their triumph over Chelsea in November there was little on display to suggest that we should be concerned about Ferguson’s men mounting a credible assault on the Premiership summit. Much the same can also be said about Liverpool, now some eighteen points adrift albeit with two games in hand.
The officials at Old Trafford were little better than those at the Bridge earlier in the day; highly questionable tackles from both Gerrard and Sissoko and Gary Neville’s hilarious but rather OTT celebration in front of the travelling fans all going unpunished. If the latter doesn’t receive a call from the FA at some point this week, Robben’s second yellow and subsequent dismissal at Sunderland will surely look even more ridiculous in comparison. That said, a word from the FA is all it should be; the news that Greater Manchester Police have contacted both Soho Square and United is simply ridiculous.
It will be interesting to hear what Rafa Benitez has to say about Liverpool’s trip to the Bridge early next month; further optimistic proclamations about knowing how to play Chelsea will sound a little more laughable than usual given their failure to overcome the team some fourteen points behind Mourinho’s men.
Next Saturday’s fourth round FA Cup tie at Goodison Park will be a tough test; the likes of Beattie and Ferguson will provide a far more physical threat than the one offered by Charlton which we failed to deal with effectively. An excellent win against Arsenal leaves the Toffees unbeaten in all competitions since New Year’s Eve; the return of Robben will hopefully provide us with the boost we need to keep ourselves on the road to Wembley in May (builders permitting).