Let’s get the clichés out of the way first. Football can indeed be a cruel game, yet you usually get what you deserve. The two statements aren’t exactly complimentary but as we saw yesterday they can apply, not just across a season, or even 90 minutes but to as short a time as two minutes.
Picture it, the lads have held there own for 90 minutes, Chelsea have a free kick about 30 yards out as the ball is laid off to Lampard a big chunk of the 23,575 crowd can already see it nestling in the back of the net, but no. He wallops it low and hard into the wall, the ball is cleared and we’re off. Teale, Roberts and Johansson breaking away a defender trailing in their wake and just one more in front of them. None of the crowd and definitely not these three are even considering running the ball to the corner. Teale holds onto the ball for a few yards too long and is forced to cross the ball in the air to Johansson, it’s a little too high and at a stretch the Swede tries to volley it over the keeper. It ends up over the bar.
The resulting kick is flicked on by Drogba to Crespo, a quick jink and then bosh a shot (with his bad foot apparently) that neither defence nor keeper had a chance with), and so you have it. In less time than it took to type, we go from a chance to beat the champions in our first ever top flight game to defeat that you an only hope doesn’t affect the players too much. There are more important games (in terms of result) yet to come.
Not that I’m down about it, how can I be? Going into the game, I was certain that we could be organised, passionate and wouldn’t lie down and die. I hoped we would have a go and not just sit back and let Chelsea show us why they we’re champions. The boys did all that, but I didn’t for one minute imagine that it would be enough to beat them.
Let’s not get it wrong, we really could have beaten them. Maybe an earlier goal would have woken them up, but even before that late breakaway we had chances to take the lead.
From the kick off we managed a couple of passes before Baines miss-hit a ball into midfield, yes it was collected by a Chelsea player, but no we didn’t let them settle on it. Mahon won the resulting challenge and so the pattern was set. The game plan was obvious and simple, but it was effective. Let them have the ball as much as they want in their half, but as soon as they step into our half close them down, hurry them in midfield and generally don’t let them settle.
Boy did it work. Don’t get me wrong, the 100 odd million pounds worth of talent weren’t exactly on song, but for that first 45 minutes they looked rattled and some of our boys looked like world beaters. Chimbonda did a great job of proving his pre-season doubters wrong, keeping first Robben and then Duff out of the game and finding time to trick his way out of trouble and get past Teale to provide an attacking treat. Teale showed determination and a willingness to try to get past his man, mostly not to the same affect as his wing partner but he’ll come across worse defences than this one over the season.
On the other side Baines and Mahon weren’t having as much joy. Whether because of Baines inexperience or Mahon being more at home inside I’m not sure, but the young left back looked the most exposed of the back four, and yet he restricted both of their wingers to bits and pieces. Mahon had two highlights in the first half, the good one a nutmeg on Makelele the bad a miss hit shot that went over the bar. It’s not fair to compare them, but McCulloch wouldn’t have had to wait for the ball to come to his left foot, and could quite easily have been celebrating another opening day goal.
Bullard and Francis did an excellent job of stopping their play and keeping ours going and the two lads behind them were simply magnificent. The midfield made sure their lack of pace wasn’t revealed, letting Ary and Stephane get on with the job of being man mountains. Chelsea created the odd chance, none as good as John Terry’s nailed on headed goal from a corner, but then you open your eyes and it’s gone over.
Last year’s player of the season had a quiet game comparatively. Compared to last season and compared to “wolves reject” and “relegation expert” Henri Camara. On this showing he’s at least going to give us some excitement this season. Turning defenders inside out looks a specialty, even if the finishing was a little wayward. By half time he’d skinned almost everyone in grey, fired narrowly wide, stung the keeper’s hands and set up the aforementioned Alan Mahon chance.
It was never going to be this good throughout but there was a certain sense of amazement spreading across the West Stand concourse at half time. Latics had played their first 45 minutes of top flight football, and if that’s what it’s all about we’ll be challenging for the title next season.
You’d have to be daft to think that Terry, Lamps et al weren’t going to get the secador de cabelo (hair dryer according to babel fish) treatment as soon as they hit the changing rooms. His comment that he’d told them “don’t come knocking on me crying when you’re not in the team” told it all, he’s not a manager prone to slagging his players in public.
The visitors were rattled enough to make a double substitution at the break, Cole and Wright-Phillips replacing Robben and Gudjohnsen, they’ve no strength in depth these lads. Things improved for them, but they never dominated. Even though our back four spent more time defending, it never felt they were under the kosh, and rarely reverted to panic defending. Despite this Latics still found time to attack, Camara blasted over after creating his own space and Damien Francis showing how he managed his 7 goals last season, coming on late to the best cross of the game from Teale and heading onto the top of the net.
Jose scraped the bottom of his squad’s barrel for his final substitution, bringing on Crespo for Duff and making it close to 150 million pounds worth of talent used in the game. Putting that in context it’s more than half what Mr. Whelan was worth at the last count. At this stage Chelsea were playing 3-5-2 and still not getting much joy. To counter this formation Camara was replaced by Johansson who slotted in just behind Roberts.
It was round about this stage that it actually dawned on me what was going on, we were there competing with the league champions and they were switching their team around to try and beat us. Johansson built on last Saturday’s performance, nothing spectacular, but far from the flop that some had predicted. He did however spurn our two best chances the other being a shot from the edge of the box that deflected wide.
The referee, Mark Clattenburg quickly built himself a reputation in his first season in the Prem. From this showing it’s not hard to see why. It can’t have been a difficult game to referee, but he managed to keep the game flowing. Those fans that booed him off the pitch had clearly forgotten about the penalty shout and Teale’s ‘handball’ that other referees could (would?) have quite easily turned to the big team’s advantage.
In all, the afternoon turned from a bag of nerves to being thoroughly enjoyable. The performance will have made us a few friends and I would imagine that a few of the floating visitors from Sunday will be coming back in a couple of weeks. But the manner of defeat, teamed with Mourinho’s insistence that we didn’t deserve it pushes us too much towards that plucky little Wigan, or everyone’s favourite second team tag that Jewell is at pains to avoid.
There are plenty of positives to take from the game, but to be honest it felt too much like a cup tie to judge anything. Even whether or not the whole t
hing has sunk in or not. It won’t be games like this that keep us in this division, it will be games like Charlton, Sunderland and West Brom that show our real prospects, and luckily enough they’re up next. If each of them is as thrilling as this then we’re in for a great ride, but to progress from this game we’ll need to take points from them.
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