Tuesday, 3 May 2016

That's the way to do it: Chelsea 2 Spurs 2

Never during my Chelsea-supporting and sports-loving lifetime had I seen a club so happily confirm the handing over of a title to a rival. Although preferring billionaire-owned Leicester to win the league by a long way, I respected Tottenham's steady progress over the years to reach the top two. Yes, their fans are scum – try wearing your colours on the walk from Seven Sisters to White Hart Lane - but why hold a grudge against their players and manager? But that opinion could not have changed more swiftly when the away side showed their true colours.

Chelsea has been a side that has been much maligned for many decades. Ken Bates was loathed by the media (and many Chelsea fans – but not me) for having the guts to fight for the club. From newspapers not reporting on Chelsea matches to television companies secretly trying to agree deals so that clubs like ours would be locked out of TV revenues, he made sure that we were not left behind.

So it was at matches last night where one wondered whether the bias was there again. Perhaps those generous plaudits in public by senior 'neutral' officials were masking shaking of heads behind closed doors. Would a small club like Leicester who spent as much on their first team as we did solely on Baba Rahman pull in the same interest as Chelsea when playing the likes of Dynamo Kiev, Porto or Hapoel Tel-Aviv? The leniency of refereeing from Clattenburg towards their only title challengers certainly raised eyebrows and caused much ire in the home end.

Tottenham should have been down to ten men well before scoring. A childish kick by England’s (yes… England’s…) Kyle Walker on Pedro was not even flagged by the assistant referee standing right in front of the incident. Even being generous, the booking he received on 27 minutes would have been his second yellow. Chelsea should nevertheless have taken the lead before Tottenham took control. But our offside trap failed yet again this season for Kane to open the scoring and another woeful error by Ivanovic allowed the visitors to extend their lead. Cue a “2-0 in your cup final” and “You’re f*cking sh*t” chorus from the visitors.

It was the introduction of Eden Hazard that changed the match. Oh, how we miss him when he is in this form. He lit up the side and even made Fabregas take the form of an attacking midfielder for the first time in the game. Suddenly, Willian actually looked dangerous and Costa had room to manoeuvre. It was the nutty Spaniard whose intelligent play led to the winning of the corner from which we pulled a goal back.

The match then descended into chaos as the visitors’ indiscipline reflected their lack of experience when under pressure. Disgraceful tackles throughout the match led to nine bookings and twenty fouls just for Pochettino’s side. Alli’s suspension now seems not to have been a one-off. Let’s see if there is more focus on their behaviour as it would be if a bigger and more successful club like Chelsea was involved. Ironically, Costa did not receive a yellow card despite his reaction to having his eye gouged by Dembele during the game.

The denouement. A stunning equaliser from Hazard producing a reaction from the home support not seen for a very, very long time. The awful behaviour of Spurs’ players and the faux superiority of the away support singing songs lacking any awareness of hypocrisy culminated in successfully firing up Chelsea fans to create a joyous celebration during a match that seemed over by half time.

2-2 in Spurs’ Cup Final. Will Leicester City now forgive the Erland Johnsen incident? We shall see… We welcome back Claudio Ranieri with open arms… and let us hope he puts Robert Huth up front.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Arsenal 0 Chelsea 1

It is supposed to be Arsenal fans who are magnanimous in defeat. Chelsea fans who apparently behave disgracefully in the stands by voicing displeasure at their own team’s performances. Arsenal coaches who show how football should be played. Chelsea managers who try to deflect attention away from deserved losses. Magnificent, new stadia that show the future of football which have the atmosphere to match. Yesterday showed quite the opposite.

It was the Chelsea fans who applauded Petr Cech while the home side’s supporters who booed Fabregas incessantly. The team in red who could only stop us from scoring when in full flight by illegitimate means. Their manager who blamed his side’s loss on Diego Costa for having the temerity to be the one who was fouled when clear through on goal. Another quiet day from the home fans who seem to treat attendances of home matches as an inconvenience when not leading to victory.

This was despite the performance of Clattenburg who after the sending off did his best to favour Arsenal. Whether it was playing advantage for such a long period for the home side that it would have been more appropriate to belong to the rugby field. Or amazingly not award one of the most blatant penalties in the second half that would have ended what was already virtually a dead rubber once Chelsea went ahead.

Man of the match has to have been Fabregas. This was the kind of performance that has been missing for quite a while and resembled Mata at his peak for us. Costa ran his absolute socks off and had he been able to hold the line better would have cause far more damage. His value for the side yesterday was best contrasted with the ineffective contribution from Remy when he replaced him. It was also welcome to see Hazard back on the pitch who seemed assured in possession and helped us wind down the clock during injury time.

Before we assume a march to a Champions’ League place, we need to face the stark reality that despite looking quite potent in attack, our defence was caught on numerous occasions by the speed of the home side. We were lucky on several occasions that their woeful finishing did not lead to an equaliser. Courtois’ distribution was simply appalling. We lack pace at the back and that has to be addressed.

This victory was not quite as sweet as it has been in the past – this time we have little to fight for and realistically it is still more likely that Arsenal or Man City will win the league than Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City side (however sweet that might be should they be eventual victors). Guus is still undefeated. Luck is on our side. Let’s just get some points on the board – I don’t really care how now. Then the performances will come.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Chelsea 3 Everton 3

This was a very important match. The one where decisions went our way. Where players who had underperformed all season for Chelsea played well (and vice-versa). An opposition player who we had been reminded on numerous occasions was one we could not buy had a shocker. A major refereeing decision that actually went in our favour. Is this the symbolically pivotal moment in our season that we have been waiting for?

Everton arrived with a very simple tactic. Play three at the back when in possession and revert to a four when defending. Ours was a strange one - when they had the ball we would chase them down and hope they would succumb to unforced errors. This left us exposed in midfield and also meant the first half was a tedious affair.

The goading from the visiting supporters about money not being able to buy us Stones was one I hoped would come back to haunt them. Would it not be ironic if he scored an own goal? That way of thinking came back to haunt in the worst way imaginable when we conceded the first. By the time the second goal went in it was almost a welcome relief that it would put us out of our misery with the drabness of the performance up to that point. Even the usual dependable Willian was having an absolute shocker.

Oscar coming on raised a chuckle but it was more than a relief to see the awful Matic leave the pitch. A brilliant ball to Costa from the excellent Fabregas saw this defender that is so rated (63 senior appearances, remember) have an embarrassing mixup with his 'keeper that led to us pulling one back. John Terry was then spurred into action, grabbed the bull by the horns and began to attack. The equaliser came right on time and derived from Costa's extreme hard work that was demonstrated all match. If Everton had not had a player injured for so long after the second goal we would have had the momentum to obtain a third. Instead, Everton took advantage in the 90th minuste after more awful defending on the far post.

It is very difficult to admit this. But having been the critic of so many Chelsea players it is only fair to confess leaving early. Approximately thirty seconds before the equaliser even though it did not feel right to do so. To hear it was John Terry made me purr with pride - especially when Stones had been the focus of attention. To hear Martinez squeal about the extra injury time was a delight. But the final goal is one piece of justice that claws back the umpteen match-changing decisions that have gone against us over the past few seasons. So what? Bring on Arsenal.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Chelsea 2 WBA 2

We should start off by thanking West Brom for the bellended nature of their time-wasting tactics adopted to secure a point. This, twinned with the frankly pointless attendance of the referee roused our home support which was otherwise anonymous. If we had won the game it would have felt like a moral victory; one that would have glossed over an otherwise mediocre performance where we were once again exposed at the back and would have been destroyed by a more capable side in attack.

It is difficult to criticise without still sounding bitter about Mourinho’s sacking. But when he blamed his employees out loud for failing to carry out their work diligently he was not wrong. The theory was that once he left we would see the real Chelsea re-emerge. Those players who might have deliberately or subconsciously played below-par would be reinvigorated. Some did… at first Oscar and Mikel shone for the first time in years. That honeymoon period is now over.

The player who earned my partisan support when he joined, Diego Costa was Mourinho’s equivalent on the pitch. He would distract the opposition. Wind them up. But still manage to score goals. This worked brilliantly when we were winning. It was even entertaining. When you struggle this creates an unneeded distraction. At one stage he was even pushed away by his own players when he bickered with the referee while we wished to take a quick free-kick. To cap it all, with only a few minutes to go he brainlessly asked for a quick ball to be released to him from Courtois so he could go on the attack on his own. Him against five WBA players. He lost and didn’t even try to hold it in the corner when he had no support. From the resulting counter, the visitors were awarded a free-kick (one of many set pieces we failed to defend) from which they equalised.

He was not alone:
Pedro. There is a reason why you were not wanted by Barca. The abysmal position on the pitch where you gave away the ball that lead to the visitors’ first equaliser was unforgivable;
Fabs. Through balls need to go to a player. Not straight out for goal kicks;
Kurt Zouma. Simply hoofing the ball as hard as possible hoping it goes to a Chelsea player is Sunday League football. Look up the word, “finesse”… it is not just used in a game of Bridge;
Thibaut. Those gloves you wear are supposed to hold the ball. You are making me miss Petr Cech more and more by the day.

One wonders what many of these players take in on the training pitch when it comes to defending – or what, if any intelligence they hold when it comes to trying to squeeze results out during trying times. One of the most annoying characteristics of our team has been the poor marking in the box. There was always at least one visiting player unmarked on the far post from crosses.

There are some positives. We are unbeaten since Guus took over. Kenedy looks an exciting prospect even if his speed means that he has to one-two against the opposition’s legs rather than his own team-mates. Ivanovic actually did a brilliant cross. Twice. Yes, twice. And Willian… I must apologise for this team that you have to play with in which you are our only consistently good player.

If we had the misfortune to play any of the big sides we would be shredded apart because of the vulnerability in our defence. In the old days, teams would pray that they would be awarded the odd free-kick to try to score against us. Currently, we are allowing sides to have umpteen chances in and around the box which used to be unheard of. This squad needed a major injection of investment but now it is too late. Nevertheless, many individuals cannot lose: financially, they are sorted; poor performances can be blamed on the preceding manager; legitimate excuses can be used for jumping ship should we not qualify for the Champions' League. It is us fans who are left powerless.

Saturday, 26 December 2015

Chelsea 2 Watford 2

It felt the same as the last time Mourinho was jettisoned from my beloved club. Personal anger in the immediate aftermath turned to a laissez-faire attitude towards matters on the pitch - especially with Avram Grant appointed as his successor. This time, I questioned my way of thinking - was my loyalty to Jose blurring my allegiances towards my club? This time we faced a fight to stave off relegation rather than a place in Europe. It certainly felt blurred against Inter when he was boss. When the Milan side knocked us out I was neither disappointed nor saddened – the final whistle was greeted with a shrugging of my shoulders and a wry smile in the knowledge that he would at some stage have come back to haunt us.

The booing that greeted some of our players last week was absent. It may have been down to conspiracy theories of who was to blame for Jose's sacking - but really it was more letting certain players know how disgusting their performances have been perceived this season.

The match began well. Yet again, for the first fifteen minutes we created numerous chances to score which we again did not take advantage of. As our momentum waned, Watford (who were excellent) grew in confidence and exposed our shaky back four which again failed to work in unison to work the offside trap (no names Ivanovic). Before Costa's brilliant instinctive whack into the roof of the net from a set-piece, Watford's Ighalo should have helped his side take the lead when he snatched at a shot - not realising how much time he had on his hands when we had played him onside.

What should not have been forgotten was that the lead up to the equaliser came from a needless foul outside the box. This turned into a corner being conceded from the resulting free-kick. The stupid handball from Matic complemented the whole episode and Guus needs to stamp out some of the idiotic decision-making from our players that results in unnecessary risks being taken in dangerous places on the pitch.

The second half brought an important change. Mikel's introduction to support the shaky back four made a world of difference and allowed Matic to probe further forward. But just as we were on the up, Watford took advantage of silly play from Pedro who decided to cross the ball from the left-back position straight out of play onto the right side of the pitch (is it not basic training to avoid doing this?) Our defenders were annoyingly asleep and although Ighalo's goal was assisted by a lucky deflection, they had no right to be even close to our penalty area as we had needlessly lost possession in the build-up.

We only kick-started into life after going behind to this goal. The sense of urgency and importance of this game was made clear by the fans who generously got behind the team while I crossed my arms in frustration at the stupidity of the goals we had conceded. But we started to play brilliantly. It even naturally stirred me into life. When the equaliser came, there is no shame in admitting that tears welled up in my eyes. This goal brought out the same emotion in me as an equaliser against the Manchester United of old did when I was a child. The manner of the build-up play and finally seeing a sense of urgency from my team touched me. It proved to me that the side does have what it takes to climb back up the table.

We could not end the game perfectly. The emergence of such nonchalance from Oscar who suddenly believes he is Messi since his nemesis Mourinho's departure annoys immensely. This was typified last week with the rabona he carried out that went to noone. This week he was nearly caught in possession when Watford had five in attack against three and he was fortunate to win a free-kick. He is someone who hopefully will lose his place until he realises that guitar solos are so passé. That penalty would have kept us out of reach of the bottom three for at least a week. He should have passed the responsibility to Costa who at least could have faced his boo-boys with a hat-trick.

This has been the strangest of seasons. It is difficult to know if the large points tally of weaker teams is them catching up with their peers or whether the more successful sides are ailing. The maths, though does not lie. We are still two points off a relegation place. A loss today would have been too much to bear. We can look forward to Manchester United and Crystal Palace knowing we have the capacity to earn points as long as we can iron out stupid mistakes. Please rise back up, Chelsea.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Chelsea 3 Sunderland 1

Clever timing. Wait to sack Jose until either Chelsea is knocked out of the European Cup to his former club Porto or we lose to ex-manager Claudio Ranieri's Leicester City side. Then 'easy' home games against Sunderland and Watford follow which should provide a buffer to let the booboys’ feelings cool off. Technical Director Emenalo (whose CV includes Enugu Rangers and Lleida – no, me neither) then exonerates players from any blame for bad displays in the knowledge that it is unheard of to sack those who underperform on the pitch. If Chelsea lose their next game then you can blame it on Mourinho’s legacy.

Walking from West Brompton before the game to suck in the atmosphere was a choice well-made. Chants of “Jose Mourinho” were already emanating from the direction of the ground at 2pm. Before kick-off as the players warmed up there was no hint of what was to come. It was only as players’ names were read out that fans let rip. You could not disagree with which players they voiced their displeasure with the most. Ivanovic – a normally solid stalwart who has had his worst season to date; Oscar – a lightweight midfielder who rarely makes any impact and is deservedly a squad player; Fabregas – whose clumsiness on the field is almost comical this year; and finally Costa – who returned from holiday overweight and whose attitude has stunk. Hazard was lucky to have been injured.

Some of the grievances have been based on hearsay and in the modern litigious environment it is unlikely that we will ever find out what really happened – whether it relates to which players leaked information to the press or bedroom antics between staff. Players know that telling the truth will not serve them well.

One of those who was targeted from the terraces – Oscar – had the game of his life. This annoyed. Was it because Hazard was missing that he chose his time to shine? His cockiness on the field was in marked contrast to his last home performance where he slipped every time he changed direction. Costa did not have any fights for once either. Fabregas only made one error. Ivanovic actually crossed the ball to create a goal. Is the message from the terraces working? Sunderland were woeful in contrast and parked the bus in the first half. In the second half, however they exposed our leaky defence and should have easily scored at least another goal.

The split between the most vociferous, well-known, individual fans who speak to the media seems clear. Those who back the board and players against those who believe footballing matters should be left to the direction of coaches such as Jose. The former group argues that we should move on and that no manager is bigger than the club. They seem to forget that no Chelsea player or member of the administrative hierarchy is either.

Manchester United v Chelsea is coming up. LVG is on the brink of losing his job. One dreads to think what happens if Jose joins the Old Trafford club before that game and Chelsea loses. Guardiola seems the most obvious choice for next full-time manager. Someone who is media-friendly and described as a genius despite only working at football clubs that already have a world-class first XI who even Scolari could win trophies with.

There was no other alternative than for Jose to leave. Not because it was the best option. But because it was the easiest. The majority of fans are more vexed with the players than Mourinho. His CV says it all. Especially when compared to those who direct the footballing side of our club.

Friday, 18 December 2015

Jose’s Exit - A Season Ticket Holder's View

To see Mourinho understandably leave for a second time and know that realistically he will never return is a hard moment to endure – arguably the hardest since attending my first Chelsea match in the late 1980s – especially with Chelsea having hit the peak of its success. I respect his determination and ambition. When watching Chelsea abroad, whether by accident or design I have made pilgrimages to clubs where he plied his trade. Belenenses is one - a club whose stadium has an unroofed stand which allows spectators a beautiful view over Lisbon harbour. There he failed to make it as a professional as his father did but had the drive and ambition to become a coach instead. Porto – where he has a statue commemorating how this historic club somehow won the European Cup under his tenure and is now hidden in relative obscurity. Inter Milan, where he outfoxed the big guns and won a treble. A club that ever since has crept back into its shell. This, before taking the reins at Real Madrid where player power killed him.

Whereas others build on their success by bolstering their squad, we appear to pray that our first team remains injury-free. Flashbacks to 2007 when we had to play Joe Cole up front during our Community Shield match as our main strikers were injured and our manager’s “class one, two or class three eggs” diatribe that most probably irked the owner. Then the match against Rosenborg in a barely half-full stadium with Drogba and Lampard missing, injured with only the hapless (if likeable) Shevchenko to rely upon up front.

Today, we are missing leaders in key areas of the pitch. Whereas we had a decent spine before – Drogba, Lampard, JT and Cech who you felt would fight when the going got tough – you now only have JT to rely upon who is not even guaranteed a start as he ages. Costa and Ivanovic are fighters but only in the most immature of senses. When we have to buy squad players from Barcelona you wonder why they let them leave without a fight? Players who we have let go have rarely prospered.

The most irksome aspect is seeing the majority of those players who walked the league last season and should have proceeded to the next round of the Champions League against PSG performing so badly this season. The mistakes they have made on the pitch – from Fabregas not being able to pass the ball to a fellow player to Costa missing easy chances in front of goal – are not down to tactics but individual reliability. Chelsea has somewhat naively not tried to lay the blame on the 1st XI. But the club knows it is easier to rid the club of its manager than players who cannot be sacked because financially it makes no sense when you can lose a potential transfer fee. The sooner we have performance related pay making up at least half of an individual’s wages the better.

I have to trust the manager to run the squad. It would annoy me to hear outsiders tell me how to do a job that I started nearly forty years ago. Compare Jose’s CV to Emenalo’s who somehow is our technical director. Can you really trust those in the higher echelons of power at the club we love?

Jose Mourinho was the person who I could trust and always assumed a method to his madness as it brought results. Psychologists admire him. When the team failed, he managed to divert the attention elsewhere. The physio incident was one that admittedly backfired. He was correct, however to note how many decisions have been ruled against Chelsea Football Club compared to our peers. How could Mourinho be fined for criticising referees while his peers be left unpunished for similar remarks for instance? Against Bournemouth, however one had to properly question his judgement for the first time when players who had underperformed more often than not were still selected in the side. Then you looked at the bench and wondered who he could play instead – there was a complete lack of quality.

There have been theories that players have deliberately underperformed to aid a speedier exit of the manager. If this is the case then their careers will be forever tainted. Can there also really be players in the squad who leak what is going on in our club from personality clashes down to formations externally? There has been a minority of fans who have been vexed at his diatribes against our support… and yet during our worst run in modern memory Stamford Bridge has never been more vociferous in its support for Mourinho when eight years ago it booed the team off when we drew against Rosenborg. Fans can see that the circumstances surrounding the manager are not normal.

The timing of our club’s demise could not have been in more typical Chelsea style. A season where we formally announced our plans for a new stadium which we are unlikely to fill at the current rate. Was this why we spent so little in the transfer market or was it a spiteful way of testing our cocksure manager’s ability?

It has also been a season where the hardcore fans who follow Chelsea in Europe have had to pick up their tickets from random venues in the country we visit adding stress to what is already an unhappy experience because of the way we are treated. One where players fail to acknowledge blind and faithful support after ninety minutes. A time when relations with those on the terraces are at the lowest they have been for a while as we seek the tourist Dollar. A season when FIFA has formally been found out and a club ambassador who we were so proud to be associated with in Sebastian Coe embarrassed.

We are most likely to look for such an ambassador to take charge of the club. Guardiola would seem to be the most obvious choice when his contract ends at Bayern this season so that we have an acceptable face for the media. But which manager would have the strength to take over a side that is more likely to be relegated than finish in a European place? We will still be here but at times such as this the relationship between the club and its real fans are the most stretched they have been in modern memory.