If football had an equivalent to the Oscars then Saturday’s clash at the Hawthorns would be this season’s “Brokeback Mountain”; much drama and passion, virtuoso acting performances and an experience for those who witnessed it first hand, but short on any serious gongs collected once the critics had finished hyping it as a work of great substance and controversy. But as a dress rehearsal, the game provided Mourinho and his men with a small-scale example of the kind of pressure cooker that will be bubbling away at the Nou Camp come kick-off on Tuesday evening. Award for best supporting role would certainly go to the crowd for their impeccably observed minute’s silence in honour of West Brom employee Scott Poll and our own Peter Osgood; special mention going to the Chelsea fans who organised the distribution of thousands of posters showing Ossie’s memorable FA Cup final goal – an excellent tribute to the great man.
It is probably more than coincidence that the column inches on the fallout from the game vastly outnumber those given over to tomorrow’s Barcelona fixture; arguably Mourinho’s biggest test as a manager. The FA will undoubtedly be scratching their heads at the number of tapes, statements and reports into the numerous incidents, with fines and touchline bans for both managers looking the most likely (if not the most appropriate) course of action. On the pitch, neither team covered themselves in glory in their separate pursuits of Mark Halsey and both deserve to be punished; Paul Robinson in particular, who put an extraordinary amount of effort into his forty yard dash and subsequent red-faced rage in explaining why Robben should be sent off.
As is often the case when the refereeing decisions have little effect on the final result, Mark Halsey has largely escaped criticism for his performance but his reading of a number of key incidents should at least be part of the FA’s focus when they examine Saturday’s events. The only difference between Wallwork’s spiteful lunge at Makelele and Robben’s scissor slide at Greening was the colour of the cards shown; despite the existence of contact that Robson denied, Drogba should have been booked for simulation after his accidental clash with Greening, much as Kamara should have received similar punishment for his shameless attempt to con his side a point in the dying seconds of the game. That the Sky coverage clearly showed Halsey indicating his belief that the West Brom player had dived is further evidence that an apparently good refereeing performance was actually riddled with inconsistencies. As for the near-continual state of war that hung over the technical area, with the fourth official having witnessed the tension between the two benches building for some time, surely the simple and most effective option from Halsey’s point of view would have been to send both Robson and Mourinho to the stands, rather than to allow their own personal sideshow to escalate into such an epic drama? The focus will be on the managers; questions should certainly be asked about Halsey’s handling of the game.
Whilst Mourinho certainly played his part in proceedings, the starring role was undoubtedly Robson’s. It may just have been that Captain Marvel had fallen out of the wrong side of the wrong bed that morning, but if his perception was that Jose was indulging in a spot of gamesmanship at his expense, then his puerile reaction spoke volumes about his relative lack of success as a manager. “If you can keep your head when all around you…”? is clearly an expression not part of Robson’s ethos. The late return of the Chelsea players after their half-time dressing down might have been something to complain about had the Baggies been left standing around in driving sleet and sub-zero temperatures; leaving them for two or three minutes in the spring sunshine, whilst not the height of good manners is hardly inflicting Guantanamo levels of mental torture upon them. Reacting as such was the start of Robson’s personal implosion that contributed to his loss of the plot and arguably the game. The fact that Mourinho managed to summarise our ills and failings as an attacking force during the first half in minutes rather than hours is testament to his skill as a manager; had anyone else attempted to do so West Brom would have watched the sun set on the afternoon, much as it may do on their stay in the Premiership should their six-pointer at St. Andrews next weekend go against them.
Whatever Jose said or did during the half-time ‘plus’ interval, it worked wonders. Drogba finally woke up, his sublime first touch allowing time and space to put a low drive past Kuszczak in the West Brom goal. His subsequent rasping shot from Huth’s excellent long ball, saved by the keeper at the near post, illustrated that the Ivory Coast forward is a player who grows in stature with even the slightest boost to his confidence. His subsequent theatrics fifteen minutes later were, however, deeply embarrassing and he needs to lose this side of his game quickly; the likelihood of anything other than the most glaringly obvious refereeing decisions being awarded in his favour diminishes with every dramatic fall to earth that he makes.
Whether Robson’s propensity for allowing the red mist to get the better of him proved to be his undoing is questionable, but with Chelsea down to ten men after Robben’s red card and five minutes after the Drogba / Greening incident had seen him venomously spitting the words “f*cking faggot (fairy?)” repeatedly at anyone of a Chelsea persuasion in earshot, he threw on Ellington and Kanu in an attempt to force a result from the game. Mourinho countered by removing a largely peripheral Gudjohnsen for the more combative Geremi and within another five minutes, Chelsea were 2-0 up. Greening gifted possession, Cole and Drogba somehow contrived to exchange passes in the area with no small amount of good fortune allowing Cole to score his ninth goal of the season. Jose’s animated celebrations will no doubt be another focus for criticism, along with his sarcastic applause of Halsey’s award of a red card to Robben.
After West Brom’s late rally which involved the obligatory nervous ‘Kanu moment’, the game ended with the only further incident of note being Kamara’s desperate but ultimately futile dive inside the box. Chelsea fans and players celebrated the tenth away win of the season; Mourinho made his way onto the pitch to congratulate his team, leaving Robson alone to ponder why all his ‘passionate’ fuming and raging had left his side with nothing to show from the game.
The ranting from all and sundry at Mourinho’s perceived lack of sportsmanship in failing to shake Robson’s hand at the final whistle is as dull as it is predictable; whether it is traditional to do so or not, I see no reason why Jose should have even acknowledged the presence of a man who spent the vast majority of the afternoon screaming foul-mouthed obscenities at him and his players. Chelsea have issued a statement suggesting that the West Brom manager set the tone for the afternoon with less than sixty seconds on the clock by verbally abusing Damien Duff, which again raises the question as to why the officials didn’t act earlier in curbing Robson’s antics. The former England man was rather subdued after the game, stating his belief that Drogba dived in order to ‘even up’ Robben’s ‘slightly harsh’ red card rather more politely than he had done from the dugout. His praise for Jose may have been through gritted teeth, but his altogether calmer approach to the post-match interview seemed to suggest that he knew his earlier conduct was unacceptable and likely to land him in hot water with the authorities.
And so to the small matter of a game in Barcelona tomorrow evening; the Catalans have already followed Frank Rijkaard’s ‘Rudi Voller’ example by attempting to drench Mourinho in spittle during a rather hostile reception at the airport yesterday afternoon. The last set of fans that attempted to intimidate a Chelsea team in such a manner were those of Galatasary; a similar result would be welcome, if rather unlikely but whether we are going out or through to the last eight, the chances of us doing so quietly or without incident are slimmer than the average Hollywood starlet on the red carpet at the Oscars.