I needed to wait a couple of days before even thinking of putting proverbial finger to keyboard to comment on this most marvellous of games. First to calm down and allow the blood pressure and cardio-vascular system to return to its normal mode of operation, and secondly to allow the last remnants of a night on the Guinness to be finally filtered from the blood stream by the increasingly overworked liver and kidneys. Also, it’s always a good idea to let the excellent Jonathan Dyer say his piece first in order to avoid repeating the same mantra and boring the readers of this blog into an early brain death similar to that suffered by most Liverpool fans subjected to watching their stultifying team each week.
The game itself was for once everything that was expected from a clash of two Premiership heavyweights, one still on its giddy ascent to the very peak of footballing excellence and the other still smarting from 20 years of relative failure after a glorious purple patch through the 70s and 80s. To be fair to Liverpool they must still be viewed very much as a “work in progress” team, and there is no doubt that they have a greater resilience under the increasingly barmy Prince Rafa of The Wirral than they ever did under the headmaster-ish Mr Houllier of St. Scousers Secondary Modern. In essence they seem very similar to the early George Graham Arsenal sides, diligent, dour, defensive and hard to beat. However Graham’s sides knew how to win “ugly” and were proud of the reputation they gained in winning games 1-0. Did the Arsenal fans care? Did they hell! I’m sure that the increasingly long suffering Red scousers would gladly accept similar styles of football in exchange for collecting the trophy that says “Champions of England”. We waited 50 years for that accolade and after Sunday you can’t help but think that Liverpool may suffer a similar fate. The groans from the bar of the Matthew Harding Lower when the Liverpool team was announced were visibly audible as well as the cascading wisecrack of “they’re playing 6-4-0 today”. In all honesty myself and my fellow traveller to the game (Mr Chelsea) had just for once agreed at the local hostelry on Friday night that Liverpool would come and pack defence and midfield in order to preserve the points gap status quo, in order to concentrate on their real battle with Manure for second place. Mr Chelsea and me spend most of the night arguing about Chelsea and the untrained observer would be convinced we supported different teams. Whereas he watches through rose tinted blue glasses, I like to think my view is more objective and pragmatic.
And so to the game — a pulsating affair with Chelsea again doing their now customary first half cagey approach, allowing the opposition to play with the ball, to pass it amongst themselves, to familiarise themselves with the ball pending the moment we take control of the game such that the opposition see very little of the thing after that. Liverpool’s game plan was obvious from the first moment, pack the midfield, stay firm at the back and knock the ball to the unfeasibly lanky Crouch for him to head the ball down to… er… that’ll be no-one then. Despite Morientes and Cisse being on the bench, Barmy Barking Prince Rafa of the Wirral decided that his striking needs would be best met by fielding one of the Lord of The Rings Walking Trees. It did beg the question from the Chelsea fans “Does the circus know you’re here”?. Is it any wonder Liverpool have a scoring rate comparable to that of the current base-jumping/free-falling experts of Middlesbrough? Slowly as the half went on though we started to exercise a grip on the game, frustrating Liverpool and forcing them into passing the ball to themselves on the midway line. And then from our first corner of the game via an improved Lampard, who obviously enjoys pairing with Essien, Billy Gallas, the unsung hero of the back four popped up to slot in a lovely goal from Carvalho’s fearless downward header. I’ve never been convinced by Carvalho, he has always seemed to veer wildly between sublime and elegant defending to Sunday morning park hacker with matching temperament; however when he’s good he’s very, very good and Sunday was an example of how he can truly perform at the very top level without niggling shirt pulls, wild lunges and referee backchat. More please, every week Mr Carvalho! The crowd predictably went wilder at the goal and within minutes Joey Cole was unlucky not to make it two. Criticise him for being greedy if you like, and yes, he possibly would have been better passing to Crespo but he won the ball back and is overdue a goal and therefore in my view had every right to try and score. Had it gone in, we would have been jumping like we were standing on the Eurostar live rail wearing copper-soled boots.
And so the first half ended and I was finally able to sit down. Yes, that’s right. For the first time I can ever remember, every person on the Matthew Harding Lower (hereinafter known as the MHL) had stood from 5 minutes before the game started until half time. It’s odd that when offered the ticket I gladly parted with £650 for a seat that unbeknownst to me my Harry Kewell like peachy arse would barely touch, not through absence, but through being in the MHL where the most common sound is the rhythmic thump of seats as they spring back to the upright position as people stand for virtually any reason. Sunday was even more extreme, because despite the warnings from stewards and the PA, virtually everyone stood for all of the game and in the end the stewards waved the white flag of surrender knowing that this level of civil disobedience was insurmountable. The net result of this was the fact that the atmosphere was of the like I’ve not experienced this season. The only real time it has been at this level was when Fulham equalised on Boxing Day. But from the very start of this game the crowd sang and chanted and shouted like 44,000 demonically possessed teenagers. It was as if the fans knew that the secondary battle was providing an Anfield like atmosphere thus ensuring that the Liverpool fans could not be heard. Our own private Fans War went much the way of the game with us out-singing and out-chanting the Liverpool fans in comprehensive and ruthless style.
The second half started with Liverpool re-entering the pitch early and right from the start it was obvious that Chelsea were in no mood to let them back in the game like we did Charlton two weeks previously. Robben always looked dangerous and seemed to send the Liverpool defence into tailspins of panic whenever he ran at them. Essien commanded the midfield imperiously, at times making Gerrard look like a one-legged Boris Johnson after an overdose of Horlicks. Joe Cole tackled like a terrier and his body strength is more impressive with each game. Yes, he still goes down theatrically from time to time, but he stands up a lot more and holds the ball under pressure a lot better than this time last year. Still our most improved player. But as the game went on it became obvious that Crespo was relishing each passing moment. His runs are superbly stealthlike, his use of space would shame Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen and his finishing is as deadly as a sexually frustrated Black Mamba whose tail has just been trodden on. His biggest nemesis at the moment is a combination of superhero goalkeepers one week, and Stevie Wonder-like linesman the next. He doesn’t do as much for the team as Drogba, but surely the Crespo/Drogba front line can’t be far off? It’s a combination that would scare the living crap out of most defences, with the physical and awkward Drogba causing aggravation amongst defenders, and the Predator-like stealth of Crespo scoring goals from positions that defenders can only scratch their heads at whilst releasing a Homer Simpson like “D’oh” at the wonderment of how he got past them into said position. How his second goal, and our third was disallowed was beyond me and the rest of the Bridge. Surely Mourinho has to complain to the FA, or the refs association about Crespo’s treatment. It’s just too regular and surely they recognise that this intelligent footballer times his runs to a degree of perfection envied even by the Swiss train service? Mind you his first and our second was a strike of such deadly skill that even the Liverpool fans must have been inwardly appreciative and jealous. At the final whistle I‘m guessing that Liverpool and their fans were relieved whilst Chelsea and their fans didn’t want the game to finish. That’s certainly how I felt.
Penultimately, the sending off issue. Robben’s behaviour was shameful. It doesn’t befit a player of his skill and talent to behave like that. Leave that to no-mark idiots like Robbie Savage, or the likes of Cheater Pires. I said the same thing after Makelele got a Monaco player sent off two years ago in the Champions League. It is cheating and serves no useful purpose other than to wind the opposition up, as we found to our cost against Monaco. The only real thing I can say in his defence is that he’s young and JM has time to knock that out of his game. He doesn’t need to do it such is his capability and potential. Reina however should also know better, and the fact is that once you raise a hand you run the risk of play acting coming into play and the ref seeing only part of what happened. Personally he should have gone for the tackle on Eidur anyway, which was reckless, unnecessary and dangerous. Can you imagine the result if Essien made such a tackle on any other player? Trial by media, instant red card, 6 season long ban, panic on the streets of London, front page headlines in The Sun with Essien’s neck in a noose, the collapse of society?
Finally, to a glorious moment of tunnel shenanigans before the game. If you didn’t see it you missed a joyful moment that should be cherished. (Note to Ed… you should find a clip and put a link to it.) It must be a 3rd Eye on Soccer AM this weekend. A 5 year old Chelsea mascot, Jake Nicholas, 3 foot high, hair dyed blue, in full Chelsea kit stood behind JT in the tunnel. As Steven Gerrard walked the Liverpool team out into the tunnel, this heir to Dennis Wise’s crown shouted “Oi Gerrard” and put his hand out to shake it. Gerrard extended his hand to reciprocate and young Jake promptly put his hand to his nose and waggled his fingers. Gerrard magnanimously smiled and tapped the cheeky little sod on the face to which he then responded with a wink back to Gerrard. Magic, sheer magic and a laugh out loud moment that showed that sometimes football is not always about bitterness and rivalry.