After last Wednesday’s performance against Arsenal, you wouldn’t have thought that Latics were capable of producing another game containing two halves of such different energy, commitment and skill that you’d swear that they were played by different sides, but here it was. Throughout the first forty-five minutes you’d have been excused for thinking that a goal in the 93rd would have been Chelsea’s eighth, but by the time it came it carried an injustice matched only by the Champions’ last visit to the JJB, last summer.
At kick off it was a case of another game, another formation; this week’s take on three in the middle of the park involving Johansson playing behind two strikers who had been told to get wide and defend when we didn’t have the ball, meaning that for much of the first half, Latics took a 4-6-0 formation as Chelsea kept the ball without getting out of first gear and picked us off, pretty much at will.
There’s little to gain in the detail, but it is suffice to say that Latics looked as confused and shapeless. By the time that they woke up to the fact that they were supposed to be in a football match, Chelsea were two goals to the good and probably should have been further in front. Arjen Robben was at the centre of both of the goals, his reverse pass to a just onside Lampard left the England man with the time and space to slot the ball under, the until then impressive, Kirkland.
The second was one of those goals that no one should concede but pretty much everyone does. Kalou’s pace giving him the half yard edge over Hall and DeZeeuw that he needed to get a free header onto Robben’s corner. It looked poor from Latics, but with a good cross and good run it’s difficult to say how they could have done too much different to stop this one.
It could have been the second goal that kick-started Latics’ afternoon or it could simply have been that Chelsea took their collect foot off the pedal even more than they had already. Either way Latics started to create problems of their own, but all the time you suspected that it would come to nothing and whatever joy they did get would be counteracted with what Chelsea were keeping in reserve.
The obvious answer to that situation is to make your move when the other team can’t come back at you and for the first time in what seems like ages things fell right for Latics. Or should that be for Emile Heskey? The big centre forward has proved Jewell’s most willing worker throughout his mid-season formation crisis and this game was no different. As the half was drawing to a close he latched on to a long ball from Baines, against everyone’s expectancies he then decided not to hold the ball up and instead ran at Boulahrouz.
One clumsy challenge later and Josip Skoko was lining up a free kick that was surely the last move of the half. His in swinging free kick falling in the no man’s land between defence and keeper and onto Heskey’s head. The goal was just desserts for both his hard work and for winning the free kick, but, on the balance of play, Latics barely deserved to be only one goal behind. Ne’er mind, 2-1 it was and the team talks would be a little more interesting.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether there were two different teams out there fir the second half, or whether the ones from the first half had swapped shirts. What was clear was that the team in blue had come out like a rocket and so it continued. For the forty minutes that followed, the home team were almost a constant wave rolling towards the Chelsea goal. Every 50-50, every second ball seemed to fall to a blue shirt and yet despite all this pressure Latics didn’t really create enough chances to get further into the game.
When the second goal finally came it again fell to Heskey. They say you make your own luck and that was most definitely the case here. An over hit cross from Cotterill, a miscued shot from Landzaat and Emile banging the ball into the back of the net from a clearly offside position. They might have felt wronged by how it came about but Chelsea could have no complaints about being level.
For a lot of teams that would be enough. Two a piece against the Champions with quarter of an hour to go and it would be a case of sit back and protect what we’ve got, but Latics had sensed blood and were going for it. As we’ve seen so many times recently, that’s not necessarily a good thing. This time around it came down to a particular moment of naivety when in injury time Latics were awarded a free kick about 35 yards out.
The simple option is to mess about for a couple of minutes, then play the ball into the corners to move the clock on a couple of minutes. The one thing you don’t want to do is loft a free kick into the goal keeper’s arms so that he can punt it up field. The safest place to defend is in the other team’s half after all. Latics and Leighton Baines in particular chose the latter.
Sixteen months ago a 93rd minute, world-class shot from the right hand edge of the Latics box snatched three undeserved points for Chelsea. This time around the finish may not have carried the same quality, but the effect was the same. Again, three minutes of injury time had passed when Robben cut inside Baines challenge. The Dutchman had already created two goals and he got his icing on the (Christmas) cake, dragging his shot to the near post.
Initially the ball looked to have taken a deflection as Kirkland didn’t move, in reality there were too many bodies between him and the ball to even pick up the shot in the first place, let alone save it. The question from Latics’ perspective was why hadn’t one of the closed the Chelsea man down?
It’s difficult to know what to take from this game. Of course there’s a lot to build on in coming back from two goals down, no matter who it was against, but to read too much into Mourinho’s post match comments could be dangerous. Of course he’s right that his team were lucky to win the game, but as Jewell says, unlucky teams go down.
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