First half bad, second half good – this might well be the chanted mantra of the average Chelsea supporting alpha male these days as he tears off more meat with his teeth whilst his wife toils away at the ironing and washing (well maybe that’s just my house on a cold Sunday afternoon when we play away). And on current evidence he would be right. It seems to be a continuing pattern – play poorly for one half (usually the first) and then turn it on for the second. The last three games have been exactly that – Arsenal, Newcastle and Everton, but look a little deeper into the games versus Werder Bremen, Barcelona, Manchester United, West Ham and arguably Liverpool and others and you see the same thing. It’s almost as if the team has a bad case of collective amnesia upon the act of hearing the first whistle which induces a hitherto unnoticed inspired hypnotic state.
Picture the scene at some previous communal club function for bonding the players and Kenny Craig from Little Britain is on stage with the players: “Look into my eyes, look into my eyes, the eyes, the eyes, not around the eyes, don’t look around the eyes, look into my eyes. [Fingers click] You’re under! When you hear the first whistle you will all forget who the others in the team are, and you’ll forget you’re all world class players, then after half time oranges everything will be back to normal… 1-2-3 and you’re back in the room.” Cue applause and laughter from our unsuspecting heroes. The results are then plain to see.
The first half versus Arsenal was a case of us sitting back and letting them run at us – it wasn’t bad per se… but for the excited fans it soon became a very bland spectacle after 20 minutes. The atmosphere created by the expectant Chelsea brood was dampened by the lacklustre display of strangulation and containment from the team and the hushed reverent tones of the Arsenal librarians ensconced deeply into a good book for the duration of the game (really… the quietest set of away fans ever!). Then after the Kenny Craig spell was lifted following an undoubtedly juicy bunch of Jaffas we came out and played them off the park and should have won 3 or 4-1.
Just when you thought it was safe to get back in your seat along came the midweek game against Newcastle. The first half display was the worst performance at Stamford Bridge I’ve seen since the Special One arrived – worse than pub football in my view, with possession given away cheaply through piss-poor passing and mindless hoofing of the ball up the park. Shaun Wright-Phillips constantly running the ball out of play on the wing, or failing to get past the static, lumbering Newcastle defenders without planting the ball safely into their possession didn’t help that night either. My jury on Wright-Phillips was out, but is firmly back in now with the verdict “guilty of being too poor to play for Chelsea ringing in his ears”. The sentence? Wright-Phillips off to West Ham, or back to Manchester City with a swap for Micah Richards. I’m afraid your Chelsea days are over my friend.
Yesterday however was just ever so slightly, fractionally different. I felt the first half was more controlled rather than mindless. Exciting? Definitely not, but if you need to feel your way into the game then do it by not conceding daft goals and for the most part this looked to be exactly the case. Just when it looked safe of course, a Chelsea player hits the big red panic button marked “Penalty Giveaway” and courtesy of one of the most blatantly clumsy and unintelligent tackles from our new scrum-half, Khalid Boulahrouz, we conceded said penalty. Talk about dubious defensive practices – the Cannibal was lucky not to get punished further because his answer all game to the threat of Victor Anichebe was to tug his shirt or grab his waist – not the finished article by a long shot and he needs to learn how to run the ball and player out safely like John Terry does.
That aside we never really looked like conceding, despite the increasingly unsettling appearance of Hilario between the sticks. A goalkeeper best described as a journeyman has increasingly looked a liability and out of his depth at the top level of the Premiership. Hurry up and get back soon Carlo Cudicini and Petr Cech, we’re going to need you both as the season enters its denouement.
Everton though put on a spirited display that shows that either they’re punching above their weight as at the beginning of David Moyes’ reign, or that Moyes’ rebuilding strategy in the face of a lack of real investment and uncertainty about the club’s future is paying dividends. I like him a lot, he’s intelligent and thoughtful and it’s hard to argue with his rational post-match comments, especially regarding Andy (not Andrew… Christ when did Andys start getting bloody precious about their name being shortened?) Johnson and his alleged dive. I’m afraid the Special One got it wrong this time and he would have benefited from our PR plonker Simon Greenberg earning his corn for once and furnishing him with a quick post-match run through on a monitor. Johnson was clearly pushed and clearly tried to avoid the ‘keeper, plus to his credit he never even tried to claim for the penalty.
Everton games can be a war of attrition at times but yesterday was more about them lifting their game and treating us with little or no respect. Just exactly as it should be when playing the champions. As a team they battled and in Anichebe they have a bright young prospect, and there’s no doubt that they are more of a team without the violent and moronic poster boy James Beattie cluttering up their front line.
In the end, they were overrun by the class and strength in depth of our team. Arjen Robben lifted his game when Salomon Kalou came on and it seems to me he misses having a dance partner such as Joe Cole or Damien Duff. Having said that he played well enough for me and in my view should be on the team sheet for every game. No-one else in the team can stop the ball dead like he can. Ricardo Carvalho is now a real force and a much under-rated player in my view. Michael Essien is our rock, Didier Drogba our guiding beacon, whilst Frank Lampard and Michael Ballack are just starting to tango in time with each other. A lot of people at work seemed to rejoice in the alleged booing of Ballack until I put them right. Andriy Shevchenko is finding his pace a little better, and of course we know the press will never acknowledge his off-the-ball contribution, because that’s not a story is it? He’ll come good… I’m sure of it.
A few weeks back I was singing the praises of Geremi at right-back, but he hasn’t impressed me since West Ham and I now find myself in the quandary of wondering whether Essien should be there from the start or whether we give Paulo Ferreira a run through Christmas. Either way, if Richards doesn’t come then Glen Johnson looks better for next season as he grows in stature and confidence with each game for Portsmouth under Harry Redknapp’s tutelage.
The second half was a much better driving display by Chelsea, led by Drogba and influenced by Kalou. To concede the goal was unfortunate and with Ballack in close proximity to Joseph Yobo too, it was also unforgivable. Ballack is a great header of the ball but he does seem tinged with fear at going into head to heads. I’m sure that with Terry back, and either Cudicini or Cech in goal Yobo wouldn’t have scored, and neither would Matthew Flamini last week.
And so to the goals – Ballack’s was masterful and maybe the free kicks do need to be shared between him and Lampard. Talking of Lampard – can there ever be a better way of breaking a record than by thumping in a goal like that from 30 yards? More please Frank, many more! But good as these were they simply paled into the background against Drogba’s Magnum Opus – a 40-yard stunner to equal Matt Taylor’s (ironically also against Tim Howard) from last week with added pace! Utterly fantastic, and a goal that left my patio doors in grave danger of containing a “Tony-shaped” hole in them through my frankly manic and juvenile celebration. Better than the Essien goal from last week? You decide!
No Chelsea player should have been rated less than 7/10 for yesterday, barring Boulahrouz, who can be best described as a “work in progress”. On a day when West Ham sprung a shock and showed that Manchester United can also have bad days at the office, our victory may well turn out to be pivotal in the destination of the Premiership trophy this season. It certainly kept me and Liam (my car share partner) who’s a Happy Hammer, content in mutual gloating on the way to work this morning.