While Jose may be worried about the recent arrival of bird flu on British shores, he seems to have started enjoying his ongoing game of chicken with Sir Alex Ferguson. The moody but magnificent Portugeezer finally broke his self-imposed silence with a classic Mourinho press conference on Friday. The message was simple; we’re coping with the ‘pressure’ of being seven points clear just fine thanks, and we’re certainly in no mood to give up our grip on the Premiership trophy. Catch us if you can.
This was all well and good, but Sunday’s indecently early game against West Ham was undoubtedly crunch time. With our current form looking less than impressive, anything other than a win and the gap could be down to just four points by close of business up at Old Trafford with a High Noon showdown against an inspired looking United due at the end of the month. After a few timely reminders about it being fifty years since the Busby Babes took the league title away from Chelsea, now was not the time to be blinking in the face of history.
The corresponding away fixture against the Hammers at New Year was arguably the last time that Chelsea looked like a title winning team. The ensuing months have seen everything from a battering up at Boro to a limp surrender in the Nou Camp, with points dropped on the road at Villa, Fulham and Birmingham. Even in the vast majority of games where another three points had been secured, the Blues haven’t looked as assured and dominant as they had during last season’s steamroller-ride to the title.
Something had not been right down at the Bridge since just after the Christmas decorations came down and the longer the malaise went on, the more questions were asked. Had we taken our eye off the ball having gone so far ahead so early on? Was the weight of expectation on the manager and the team too great? Had we gone too long on autopilot to kick ourselves back into gear when the heat came back on?
Add to this the rumours of dressing room unrest, players wanting out in the summer and the black cloud hanging over Jose himself, the good ship Chelsea has been pitching and rolling enough to make even the hardiest of us feel a little seasick in recent weeks.
So a reaction of some sort was needed. A Herculean effort. The spilling of blood, sweat and tears; a dogged fight to the last. More guile and killer instinct than we showed against Birmingham and more, well, everything than we displayed down the road at Fulham. Damn it, even if this badly-timed blip does mean that we’re going down, let’s at least do it fighting. A proper ‘Butch and Sundance’ style finale with Terry and Lampard facing the hail of bullets in place of Redford and Newman. Or something more in keeping with our recent efforts and the ensuing coverage in the media; the dénouement of ‘Thelma and Louise’ with Robben and Drogba in drag driving a 1985 Ford Fiesta off Putney Bridge into the Thames at low tide.
But no, less than twenty minutes into yesterday’s game and it looked even worse than that. Trailing 1-0 after a bright start thanks to some shocking defending, and now we’re down to ten men following Maniche’s over-the-ball tackle on Scaloni. It can’t end like this, can it?
You could almost hear the stonemason chipping away at our gravestone.
“April 9, 2006. Here lies Chelsea’s 2005-6 title challenge; ruthlessly slain by a crap Scouse referee with a slightly effeminate gait and a West Ham centre half who was just very, very ginger.”
As epitaphs go, it might well have been factually accurate but it would hardly have been fitting for a team that had sat atop of the Premier League table for eighteen months. But with the sending off, something happened; a turning point, the straw that finally broke the camel’s back. The sense of indignation and righteous anger amongst everyone Blue inside the Bridge was palpable. Not just in the context of the game, but in the light of everything that had been slung in our direction in recent weeks.
You’ve slated us, taunted us, laughed at us, branded us cheats, you’ve brought charges against us whilst ignoring the actions of others and worst of all, you’ve suggested that we might not quite have what it takes to be anything more than just a flash in the pan.
Well now we’ve had enough. Now we’ll show you exactly why we’re champions and that we intend to remain so for a little while longer yet.
Then at last came the one thing that seems to have been forgotten in the maelstrom that has threatened to consume Chelsea of late; the football that got us to where we are today.
With Mourinho resisting the temptation to change things around in the aftermath of Maniche’s dismissal, the oddly winger-free (how much would that decision have been questioned had the outcome been less favourable?) and now depleted side went about West Ham with such an incredible sense of purpose that had Chris Foy given Alan Pardew the opportunity of putting an extra player on the pitch, he probably would have declined to save his twelfth man the embarassment.
Within little more than ten minutes, West Ham had been on the receiving end of a couple of sucker punches that they clearly weren’t expecting from out-of-form, ten man Chelsea. Drogba ran on to a Lampard through-ball and after his initial shot had been blocked by Collins, guided the second chance shot through the helpless Gabbidon on the line.
Two minutes later and West Ham were, for all intents and purposes, dead and buried with a big defiant Blue flag shoved firmly up their complacent Cockney backsides. Drogba’s cross took a slight deflection and found its way onto Crespo’s boot; the Argentine made no mistake from close range to end his recent barren spell.
The best centre-back partnership at the club not only stood firm, but added their four-penneth to proceedings in the second half. Terry’s superbly struck drive finished the game as a contest ten minutes after the restart and Gallas, unlucky when providing an off-the-bar assist for his captain, celebrated his return to the side by slotting home from a yard out following Drogba’s flick on.
“It’s so easy, with ten men…” bayed a jubilant Stamford Bridge. It would have been difficult to find a West Ham fan who disagreed; most of them were on their way back to Fulham Broadway at that point.
The woodwork and the officials prevented the Blues from giving the scoreline a more emphatic feel, but any type of destruction of West Ham is always highly enjoyable and the opportunity to remind our old friend Teddy Sheringham of his true popularity down in West London was an added bonus. A bit of a roller-coaster start, but overall a brilliant day that restored the collective faith in all things Chelsea.
In amongst a stunning team effort where every player on the pitch contributed selflessly to the cause, two individual performances stood out; those of Drogba and Makelele.
Our much-maligned striker played the kind of game that made his record-breaking price tag seem almost reasonable. He hassled, battered and intimidated his way through a superb performance of the type that Messrs. Senderos and Hyypia still have nightmares about. He only went to ground when he was tackling (of which he did plenty) and was involved in literally everything that Chelsea produced; had you nipped out for pint at half time it wouldn’t have been a surprise to see him shifting a few barrels of ale around just to keep himself occupied until the restart. Quite which Didier Drogba will turn up at Bolton next Saturday remains to be seen but the more he has been criticised of late, the better his performances have become. More of the same please DD.
And then there was Makelele; an absolutely stunning performance. It says everything that pundits now frequently refer to the holding midfield position as ‘the Makelele role’. There is little more you can add about the man who has made playing one of the least glamorous positions on the pitch into something of an art form; watching him play like he did yesterday is as mesmerising as watching a great striker in form or an in-form winger terrorising full backs. Despite our numerical disadvantage, he tackled, intercepted, shielded and distributed in such an imperious manner that he rendered West Ham’s normally impressive midfield lynchpin Nigel Reo-Coker only marginally more effective than he would have been had he stayed at Upton Park for the day. There must surely be a wry smile on Claude’s face every time he thinks of the ‘Galacticos’ at his former club and their collective medal haul since his departure back in the summer of 2003. A truly unique football player and in the opinion of many, one already firmly established in the ranks of Chelsea’s legends.
A good day’s work all round; the blip emphatically dealt with, the ship steadied and the gap to United remaining at seven points with five games to go. The race is far from over yet, but another three points and one more game gone as the number of opportunities for Ferguson’s men to catch us has decreased further. Fergie is adamant that United can do it, stating that we have tough away games to come at Bolton and Blackburn and a final day encounter with Newcastle at St. James’s Park where the retiring Alan Shearer, the player he once tried to sign, will look to say goodbye to the Geordie nation with a victory. All very true of course and whilst the headlines are Ferguson’s given that he has led his team superbly and put them in a position that finally gives the nation a title race, it should be remembered that United cannot afford to drop a single point and still have to visit the Bridge at the end of this month.
A superb day was rounded off and indeed summarised perfectly whilst sitting on the tube home. A lone, hollow and rather lethargic voice with a slight East End twang rang out across the carriage.
“We hate Chel-sea and we hate Chel-seaaaaa…”
A few wry smiles were cracked; that’s you and most of the English speaking world, my friend. But it won’t stop us and in some strange way, I’d even go as far as to suggest that it has helped us quite a bit of late.