The Observer, Dominic Fifield: “Chelsea’s victory here was comfortable; a stroll with the champions barely breaking into a sweat once their hosts had presented them with a comfortable lead in the opening quarter. The division’s bottom club huffed and puffed, provoking a few anxious moments when the visitors dawdled in their dominance, but already this season is hinting at disaster. Pointless still, West Ham travel to Stoke next weekend. Tony Pulis’s side will feed off their fragility.”
Sunday Telegraph, Duncan White: “It must be an incalculably depressing experience to play against Michael Essien. Seemingly devoid of weakness, the Ghana midfielder consumes opponents relentlessly, then breaks into a grin. West Ham United were the latest on the menu. Having missed much of last season with a knee injury, his return has made an already powerful Chelsea side stronger and on Saturday he was not content merely to dominate midfield but gave a passable impression of Les Ferdinand as he headed two goals as the champions eased past West Ham.”
Independent on Sunday, Steve Tongue: “Can’t tell the bottom from the top? There was little difficulty in doing so here yesterday as Chelsea completed a fourth successive victory by inflicting West Ham’s fourth defeat. The surprise was that the champions conceded a goal, volleyed in by their former midfielder Scott Parker too late to matter. It was the first time Petr Cech had bent his back to retrieve the ball since a defeat at Tottenham back in April, more than 11 hours of football time ago.”
Official Chelsea FC Website: “Two headers from Michael Essien and a Salomon Kalou goal, gifted by a Rob Green mistake, maintained the only 100 per cent record in English League football.”
So we’re back then. The recent international break has given us all a chance to take a breather after our, well, how do I put this, strangely predictable start to the season. I say predictable because judging from the lack of any surprise amongst the journalists and their write-ups of our first three matches, you would have thought that scoring fourteen goals without reply and keeping the only remaining 100% record in the division was simply business as usual.
And when you look at some of the dross we’ve played, you can perhaps understand why many observers have been so blase about our perfect start to the season. After all, scoring six at home to West Brom and six more away at Wigan is normal, right? Well, no, it isn’t really. Carlo and our gang of old rockers have put on a brilliant show of pass and move football thus far, with our front three scoring at will, the midfield three rotating constantly and Ashley confirming to everyone that he isn’t just the best left-back in the world but one of the best left-backs this country has ever produced. But Chelsea and its band of loyal followers are like no others in that winning the Double under the direction of one of Europe’s greatest managers, and plundering 103 league goals along the way just isn’t enough for some. Erm, I think that finger is pointing at me but let’s leave that for now. We’re always expecting more and with quotes like these: “No doubts, the Champions League is the most important competition for us this season,” so is Carlo. Personally there have already been points this season when simply winning just hasn’t been enough; I think it was at 3-0 against Wigan when I began to get annoyed that we weren’t striding forward at every available second looking for more goals. Crazy, I know, especially as we went on to get six but it was simply a consequence of the ludicrously high standards we’ve set recently. The level of expectation in this peculiar Chelsea bubble reached a nadir against Stoke when a professional 2-0 win against a tricky opponent was greeted with a yawn and a shrug of the shoulders by many fans and even a sense of disappointment that we had only scored twice.
Now, talk of winning the ‘right’ way brings up horrible memories of the end of Jose’s period at the club and has been a feature of the doomed Galacticos experiment in Madrid for years, but that’s virtually where we are as a club now. Winning matches looks routine so Chelsea are now judged by how we win, the number of goals we score and whether Pete has kept another clean sheet. The aggregate score of 14-0 from the past three league games, combined with some of the dire displays our rivals are putting on (as I write this Utd have conceded twice in a minute to drop two more points and two weeks ago City looked dreadful as Darren Bent scored the winner) mean that I fully expect us to retain our title but would another year without the Champions League coming to the Bridge count as failure I wonder? I only ask that because with another rebuild going on in Madrid, Barca looking a bit iffy and Inter being subjected to Rafa’s madness, this feels like a great chance to finally win old Big Ears. Whoever thought that there would be talk of ‘only’ winning the league constituting relative failure? But if we could only have one, this feels like the year when we’ll be prioritising Europe over everything else.
West Ham: Green, Jacobsen, Ben-Haim, Upson, Ilunga, Parker, Behrami, Noble, Boa Morte, Cole, Obinna. Subs: Stech, Tomkins, Dyer, Barrera, Kovac, Faubert, Piquionne.
Chelsea: Cech, Ferreira, Ivanovic, Terry, Cole, Essien, Mikel, Ramires, Anelka, Drogba, Kalou. Subs: Turnbull, Benayoun, Malouda, Zhirkov, Sturridge, Alex, Kakuta.
I always hate it when Lamps doesn’t play as his class and experience always helps to keep the side ticking over but West Ham away isn’t the test it used to be, so on paper at least, Ramires would have a comfortable full debut. JT had also recovered from a hamstring complaint to make his 300th Premier League start alongside Branners, who was preferred to the rested Alex. Malouda also got a rest with Kalou coming in for him.
Of interest to some may be that Lampard’s absence gave Ancelotti a chance to put Kakuta on the bench. Carlo said: “He will have the same opportunity as the other players. He deserves to play because he’s trained very well, he’s focused, he’s concentrated. If he shows his quality, he will play. We can’t consider him a ‘young player’ any more. We have to consider him a first-team player.” Great to see him but if a place on the bench for our most talented youngster can only come from an injury to key player then I worry for the chances for Bruma, Borini and Josh.
A strange game, this one.
From the kick-off, Avram’s idiotic diamond formation was immediately exposed by some strong running from Ash and then Ramires who cleverly won a corner off Parker inside the opening minute. With Frank at home and Malouda asleep on the bench, it was down to Didier of all people to take the corner. Despite some moronic cheers from the West Ham crowd, Didier did his best Henry impression to perfectly curl over the corner onto Essien’s head who easily powered it home from eight yards. And that was game over in my mind after 80 seconds.
For the next 20 minutes we played some lovely stuff in search of the second goal to kill off West Ham. Ash and Paulo were bombing forward at will but it was Essien who was crucial to our win today. He was playing the Lamps role of the advanced midfielder ahead of Mikel and Ramires and looked back to his best as he regularly powered forward past the pathetic Boa Morte. There was plenty of movement from all three of them though, with even Mikel coming close to a goal a couple of times and it was his trademark nicking of the ball, pirouette and clever pass forward which found Didier about 40 yards out. The big man won a clever free-kick by running into Boa-Morte but it looked too far out for a dangerous attempt at goal. He tried it anyway and despite it being a useless, slow and frankly awful effort, Rob Green decided to drop it. There was no danger though as Upson was there to clear it away. But he instead chose to smash it against Kalou whose perfectly angled heel directed the ball into the net for our second goal. It was laughably bad defending but not really that surprising judging by there first few results.
The rest of the half saw us fall asleep and play some sloppy stuff for the first time this season. It was clear that some of them were saving themselves for Europe on Wednesday and slowly Parker and Obinna began to give us some problems. Ramires was looking a bit off the pace as he was pushed off the ball two or three times after dallying in possession and Didier began to also drift out of the game. We were absorbing pressure and defending well but our football wasn’t as slick and controlled as it had been against West Brom and Wigan, with passes going astray and the wrong decisions being made when we counter-attacked. Despite the odd break away and a 25 yard Mikel strike onto the bar, it was West Ham who were doing all the pressing. Obinna saw a couple of shots go wide and missed a sitter after Paulo lazily played him onside but in the end they ran out of the ideas and the half ended rather quietly.
The second half began with Avram introducing Dyer and going to a 4-3-3. Carlo only made a few tweaks with Essien being shifted next to Mikel to protect our 2-0 lead and Ramires instead given the chance to spring forward. Not much football was being played in the first few minutes of the half and of most interest was West Ham’s attempt to kick us off the park. Ash had been booked for the slightest push on Noble in the first half, but Behrami, Parker and Jacobsen were allowed to kick lumps out of us for 45 minutes with nothing more than a few warnings being issued by the ref. In the end Parker was booked for a nothing challenge on Anelka but his smashing of Essien’s face with his shoulder looked deliberate and should have gained a second yellow late on.
With more important games coming up and with West Ham more interested in appeasing their restless fans by running around like lunatics for the rest of the half, we decided to retreat and seemed happy to defend a 2-0 lead before heading home. West Ham didn’t do much more than lump it forward to Cole but we seemed flustered and our attacking play was poor at times. We had a few chances to score a third and Kalou’s curled effort from 20 yards deserved to find the back of the net, but Carlo didn’t look happy for most of this half as he stomped around his technical area. Avram threw on Piquionne but almost immediately we exploited the extra space given to us and scored a beautiful third goal. Mikel cleverly pitched the ball out wide for Paulo to curl the ball in for Essien to head home for his second of the day and that was most definitely game over. Kakuta and Malouda had come on and even JT was able to rest his dodgy hamstrings but rather annoyingly, West Ham decided to go and nearly ruin my day by scoring. It was a stunning, Iniesta-esque volley from Parker after Cech’s awful punch from a corner and that was our clean sheet gone.
We just about managed to escape conceding again, although Piquionne’s miss from a yard out was a classic and in the end it was a very professional, away performance as we strolled home with a routine 3-1 win. The football wasn’t great at times and our passing was sloppy in the second half but Ramires grew into the game nicely and Kakuta also showed some flashes of the brilliance we know he has. Seventeen more away wins like this will do nicely and despite conceding for the first time, an aggregate score of 17-1 after four games is rather impressive. The four point lead over Utd also looks pretty useful.
- Essien – An absolute powerhouse who ran large parts of the game from his more advanced role. His two goals were a bonus but even without them, his overall performance was brilliant. He is unstoppable at times and even though he doesn’t look quite back to his irrepressible best – he’s very close though – he does feel like a new signing and his return has certainly helped…
- Mikel – He’s had a stunning start to the season and looks to be playing with more confidence (he even had two shots today). Recently, when asked why Mikel is playing so well, JT put it down to him “not playing it square every time he got the ball and the fact that he’s lost some weight.” Simple really. But it’s Essien’s return which has proved crucial for me. Mikel can now stride forward, safe in the knowledge that Essien will cover back for him and this season, our midfield three look a lot more mobile, fluid and powerful. Many expected Ramires to push him out of the side but after today, Mikel looks way ahead of the Brazilian.
- Ash – The best left-back of his generation? Of course he bloody is and I don’t care who disagrees with me.
- Ivanovic and JT – Unbeatable. They compliment each other brilliantly and for me, they are still our best pairing at the back. But can we afford not to have Branners at right-back?
- Avram – You knew he had to come up at some point and I’ve done my best to avoid criticising him thus far, but I just can’t resist anymore. I’ll leave aside my personal hatred of the man and his melted hockey-mask, Gordon Brown-esque haunted face and simply ask you discerning and objective readers: is Avram a good or even average manager or just a fraud? His inability to inspire a team is legendary (flashbacks of him being shoved out from the team-talk in extra-time in that Carling Cup final against Spurs come to mind) but what is it that keeps making clubs hire him? He weaselled his way into Chelsea as a Director of Football who demanded a place in the dug-out, forced out a manager, complained about the state the club was left in when he got it, said he had changed the type of football we were playing and claimed he was unfairly forced out. He relegated Pompey and has now led West Ham to the bottom of the table and has begun complaining about a “lack of signings” despite bringing in eight new players. He’s a fraud and a charlatan and always seems to have an excuse ready to explain away yet another defeat. West Ham will go down if he’s still in charge come May although I think he’ll be gone by December. I really am struggling to see the appeal of Avram as a professional football manager, so please, if anyone can shed any light on this myth, do tell.
- Cech – Ruined a commanding performance with a pathetic punch. Why didn’t he just catch it?
- Rivals – The league wrapped up already? City and Utd look poor and Arsenal will fall away as soon as we power past them. Who else is there?
Now, some of you may hate this bit, but there are some who like debating the ridiculously subjective, biased and inaccurate ratings handed out, so here they are:
- Cech – 6/10 – Would have got an 8 as his handling, decision making and kicking were great. But losing our clean sheet record like that annoys me.
- Paulo – 8/10 – He just never lets you down. I say that every time but he doesn’t. Steady at the back and that beauty of a cross gets him an extra point.
- Ivanovic – 8/10 – A little rusty early on but was almost unbeatable at the end. Talk of his contract running out in a year is a little worrying though as he is one of the best defenders in the country.
- JT – 8/10 – A strong and commanding performance from the Captain. He hardly put a foot wrong all day but Carlo has said he’ll need to be carefully managed to get through the season without another serious injury. The Superman act may be catching up with him.
- Ash – 8/10 – Raided forward all day and was solid at the back. I’m still baffled that some thing Evra and Clichy are in his class as he’s been untouchable for the past year.
- Mikel – 9/10 – He didn’t score but that’s one of the best performances I’ve seen from Mikel since he joined. He looks calm on the ball, has perfected that clever pirouette/turn thing to get away from opponents and has started to pass forward more and more. A couple more weeks of this and Ramires will join Zhirkov as another ridiculously expensive sub.
- Ramires – 6/10 – Hmmm…He grew into the game and can look great when given time and space but the way Parker pushed him off the ball with ease in the first half was a worry. Needs time to adjust to the league.
- Essien – 9/10 – Two goals and a great midfield performance. That’s it really.
- Anelka – 6/10 – Pretty quiet. Some nice movement and touches but it wasn’t his best game for us.
- Kalou – 7/10 – He always chips in with some crucial goals and is starting to put pressure on Nico in my book. Nico is still perfect for our total-football, fluid, front three but if he ever needs a rest on hits a bad run of from, Kalou looks ready for a regular starting role soon.
- Kakuta (sub) – 7/10 – Carlo doesn’t think we should look at him as a youth player anymore and after his cameo today, I tend to agree. It may not have been as exciting as his Wolves debut but it was a more mature and controlled performance and he may get a run-out against Blackpool if the Zilina trip is a bit tiring for Nico et al.
- Alex (sub) – 6/10 – Didn’t touch the ball.
- Malouda (sub) – 6/10 – Got two touches, I think.
Man of the Match
You know, I really should give it to Essien but for his overall play I’m giving it to Mikel. He was calm, controlled and classy on the ball and combines brilliantly with Essien. With Malouda he’s been our best player this season.
So a routine win in the end against Avram and his collection of rejects. To score three more away from home is impressive and when you consider that we had to juggle an international break with Carlo’s Champions League rotation, to come away with such a comfortable victory is very impressive indeed. It was professional and as many others have said, we strolled through most of the game with a tricky trip in Europe to come. We may not have been at our best but for our rivals to have dropped so many points so early is either sloppy or just idiotic. This title looks ours to throw away.