The Guardian, Kevin McCarra: “A tepid match inflamed the hearts of the visiting supporters who witnessed Chelsea putting themselves on the verge of the title. Carlo Ancelotti’s side need, at the very most, a home victory over Wigan next Sunday to bring the Premier League trophy back to Stamford Bridge for the first time since 2006. Conspiracy theorists, however, will linger over the opener here, when the Liverpool captain, Steven Gerrard, hit a careless pass-back in the 33rd minute that let Didier Drogba open the scoring.”
Daily Telegraph, Henry Winter: “So, it is down to the wire, down to the final weekend and down to Chelsea holding their nerve against Wigan Athletic. As Carlo Ancelotti and his strong-willed players moved ever closer to touching the Premier League trophy, Rafael Benítez’s dejected and disorganised Liverpool edged closer to touching the abyss.”
The Independent, Sam Wallace: “Ancelotti is now within touching distance of the Premier League and all his team need to do is win against Wigan Athletic at Stamford Bridge on Sunday to be sure of seeing off Manchester United. After three seasons of living under the yoke of Sir Alex Ferguson’s dominance – not to mention that Champions League final defeat in Moscow in 2008 – they are back at the top of English football. The whole Abramovich project has been re-energised.”
Official Chelsea FC Website: “A spirited and committed win at Anfield has brought Chelsea within one win of the Barclays Premier League title.”
Some preliminary thoughts
Somehow, our dysfunctional band of over-the-hill, out of form, overpaid, gutless mercenaries managed to pull themselves out of their cash-lined penthouses after capitulating meekly to Spurs and transformed themselves into a hungry, stylish and free-scoring monster in front of a bemused Bridge last weekend.
Never let it be said that the Blues aren’t in touch with their fanbase; we have a team almost as bipolar as its own supporters. If a week is a long time in politics, you could measure the same period in light years down in SW6; the seven days between White Hart Lane and the evisceration of Stoke was the kind of transformation that would have made even Nick Clegg a little envious.
But looming into view was the small matter of a trip to Anfield. A full, unsettling snap of rubber gloves to mask the icy probing hand, could you cough for me now please sir style examination of our title credentials.
The previous week hadn’t gone swimmingly for our old pal Rafa, who has recently looked slightly more haunted than Jamaica Inn on a stormy winter night. Having watched his season turn slowly into some kind of gothic nightmare, Thursday night’s energy and spirit sapping exit from the Europa Vans Trophy was hardly ideal preparation for the visit of Ancelotti’s resurgent (and well rested) Blues.
Amidst all this was the fevered media and blogging based chatter about quite how much Liverpool would want to win the game in the first place; virtually handing the elusive 19th title to their fiercest rivals. Much of it utter cock, of course, but fun to indulge in to pass a seemingly interminable length of time between games.
Games between Chelsea and Liverpool have taken on a different tone in recent years; regular Champions League meetings and the barely disguised antagonism between Benitez and Mourinho stoked a rivalry that had never really existed previously.
Despite that, history has seen the odd pivotal game between the sides – I suspect that most Chelsea fans would agree that we wouldn’t be looking down the barrel of a third Premier League title had Zola, Vialli and Mark Hughes not routed Roy Evans’s Spice Boys on their way back to our first major trophy win in over two decades back in 1997.
We travelled to Anfield with no new injury worries; Ballack kept his place in the holding role, Terry returned from suspension shifting player of the season candidate Ivanovic to right-back.
Personally, whilst nerves were the order of the day, there was something comforting about seeing an attacking quintet of Lampard, Malouda, Kalou, Anelka and Drogba on the teamsheet. If we couldn’t beat a tired, depleted and dispirited Liverpool side with that lot on the pitch, we should happily doff our caps in the direction of the Stretford End and be done with it.
For twenty minutes or so, Liverpool looked far from a bunch of manic depressives dragged from beneath their duvets – some sharp, quick passing gave them the early initiative, Aquilani’s twenty yard bar-brushing piledriver being the pick of the early exchanges.
But the elephant in the room – and we’re talking one seriously huge pachyderm here – was the sheer lack of quality up front without Torres. And this elephant isn’t just in Rafa’s room anymore. It has made itself comfortable on the sofa, called some mates in Sri Lanka and ordered a pizza, helped itself to Rafa’s wine cellar and is currently whispering crude suggestions in the ear of a pliant and giggling Mrs. Benitez.
As the Blue faithful started to twitch a little, the old “big games need big players” (a theme that I shall return to later) adage slid into view in a slightly unexpected but nonetheless welcome manner.
One goal, one assist.
Good old Stevie Gerrard; a fine record he has for Chelsea – just as he cropped up with an equaliser in the 2005 Carling Cup Final when things were looking a tad bleak, his defence-splitting backpass found a very grateful Drogba (who had previously veered dangerously close to becoming his not-that-bothered alter-ego up until then) who rounded a stunned Pepe Reina and gave us the advantage.
The conspiracy theorists started typing furiously, some noting that Gerrard does (allegedly) have a lot on his mind at present, the details of which are available on other websites should you choose to have a surf.
From there on in, it became pretty much one-way traffic. A resurgent Kalou started to torture Mascherano, a very makeshift right-back and had a reasonable shout for a penalty just before the break having been clipped by Lucas just inside the box.
The pressure increased after the interval, with Anelka failing to connect with Kalou’s cross whilst positioned on the goal line; even then, the feeling was that we would eventually add to our tally with Liverpool looking like a team desperate for the season to end than one chasing fourth place.
Inevitably, a much-deserved and crucial second arrived as Frank (who else?) arrived to meet Anelka’s cross ahead of another Liverpool fringe player you’ve not really heard of before. Reina kept the scoreline respectable, saving superbly from Malouda and twice from Anelka but the result was never in doubt.
What were we worried about? OK, no need to answer that…
“It would be possible to describe everything scientifically, but it would make no sense; it would be without meaning, as if you described a Beethoven symphony as a variation of wave pressure.” Einstein said that, and he wasn’t half a clever bastard.
Man of the Match
For a moment of subjectivity, I’d call it between Alex, Ivanovic and Kalou. And just because I like an underdog, our much-abused but equally underrated Ivorian edges it for me. Frustrating? Yes. But probably the only player we have that actually runs at the opposition with a degree of pace and unpredictability. The end result may not always be there; he’s sort of a Gronkjaer for the Ancelotti era with a few added goals which makes him the perfect squad player. Long overdue cult hero status, in my opinion.
Congratulations to Miroslav Stoch on his part in FC Twente’s Dutch title win; one we’ll hopefully see back here next season after he’s been to the World Cup.
As mentioned earlier, big games need big players. Six wins out of six, one goal conceded.
Of course, I’m not talking about our impeccable record against the rest of the big four this season; I refer to my own match reporting stats for the current term prior to this game. And with this shameless piece of self-promotion and aggrandisement (and none to subtle dig at my fellow blogger Mr. T. Glover, whom I shall be purchasing a pint for next weekend by way of recompense), having racked up the magnificent seven, I’m leaving the remainder of the campaign to someone else with my Hiddink-esque reputation intact.
Enough already. Two games to go. Such is the unpredictability of this season that we could add our name to the half-a-dozen winners of the league and FA Cup double or end up with the sum total of bugger all to show for our endeavours. Focus is the key – Dave “Wanker” Whelan will undoubtedly be all over the media this week telling us that we’ll get no favours and so forth, but the title is there for the taking and if we’re being petty, we owe Wigan one.
As we close in on history, spare a thought for poor old Rafa. No Champions League football and a squad so lacking in quality one wonders where that £200-odd million actually went. It’s no wonder that Statler and Waldorf want out almost as much as he does. And a Chelsea supporting CEO in charge at Anfield too – karma is a wonderful thing.
Now stop laughing at the back – we’ve got a title to win.