- Missing Link
- The Club
Trudging disconsolately down Wembley Way after witnessing the embarrassingly slip-shod on-field debacle that had culminated in Chelsea’s meek surrender of the Carling Cup to an effervescent Rottenham Dropspur, I’d cast a cursory glance over my shoulder.
The magnificent illuminated arch arcing over the brand new stadium lit up the darkening early evening sky which as if to match my blackening mood was heavy with dark rain clouds predictably beginning to jettison their damp cargo on the poor unfortunates queuing patiently for the escape trains back to central London and beyond down below.
Every one is entitled to an opinion, especially the 2000ish supporters of Chelsea Football Club for whom the defeat at Wembley, by a team whose victories over the Blues in the modern era have been as rare as a sighting of Haley’s Comet, had come on the back of a tortuous trip to Athens where we had endured a dour Chelsea display.
A less than inspiring 0-0 draw in Greece against an Olympiacos side who’d dominated possession, played some enterprising football and might have won the game had their best player Predrag Djordjevic’s finishing been more composed had not bred confidence for the forthcoming weekends Carling Cup Final.
“In football, I never gamble and we put a strong team out,” Avram Grant said, defending his team selection after the match. “We played with a strong team and also a strong bench, and we will do it again and again in the future.” Against Olympiacos Chelsea were as poor as I had seen them all season.
They lacked shape, cohesion, width and any kind of cutting edge. Didier Drogba looked isolated and unfit and Ashley Cole was a peripheral figure, repeatedly ignored when he overlapped down the left. Only hard-working Michael Ballack looked like he wanted to win the game for the Blues even Michael Essien came up short, huffing and puffing and making me wonder what our African boys had done any real training during their African Cup of Nations sabbatical. Briefly I’d wondered what had gone through the minds of Messrs Terry and Lampard uncharacteristically warming the substitutes’ bench as the game got underway.
‘Panathinaikos’ we’d unwisely chanted in response to a couple of Greek wags who’d unfurled a Sp*rs scarf and waved it at us with fifteen or so minutes of the match left. The chant provoked a predictable response from the home support gathered to the right of the heavy-duty Perspex barrier separating them from us and with negligible intervention from the local constabulary, Blues fans were forced to spend the remainder of the game dodging the hail of missiles in the form of coins, water bottles and assorted kebabs launched in our direction. At the final whistle, prevented from leaving the ground until 12.30am local time, their was plenty of time to discuss the matters at hand, chewing the team selection fat and tactical moves and of course the impending match with Rottenham Dropspur.
The general consensus was that Avram Grant, whom after hiring an image consultant, apparently to make him look more suave, was wearing a black trench coat that resembled him to a member of Godfather Don Corleone’s mob, was keeping his powder dry for Sunday. Fair enough, surely everyone connected with Chelsea Football Club would be well aware that as far as Blues fans were concerned, defeat against the men from Three Point Lane quite simply wasn’t on the agenda. On the evidence of Sunday’s performance in defeat, it looks as if our theorising was as wide of the mark as Mr Grant’s decision to omit the one Chelsea player who truly understands the importance from a fans perspective of winning against Sp*rs. The sight of Joe Cole, a Chelsea supporter from childhood days, tethered to the bench for the first 99 minutes of this lacklustre performance caught like a spiny fishbone in the back of my throat especially given the fact that during the course of ‘normal time’ the Blues posed virtually a zero threat to Juande Ramos’ men from open play.
Drogba’s free-kick which gave Chelsea their 1-0 lead had left Sp*rs keeper Robinson for dead, a clueless custodian who might have been put under more duress had the incongruous looking pairing of the Drog and Anelka shown any sign of gelling. Frank Lampard restored to midfield looked as disinterested as he was ineffective and SWP quite simply wasn’t on the money from the off and should have been substituted at half time if not before. When the equaliser came, it was from the penalty spot.
Without the benefit of TV or bionic eyesight, I was unable to judge if the handball decision against Wayne Bridge, another of Chelsea’s perennial triers who’d done a good job keeping Lennon quiet, was harsh or not. Referee Halsey, consulted with his linesman and gave the penalty. Berbatov easily had the measure of Cech from the resultant spot-kick, and from that moment on the creeping realisation that this wasn’t going to be our day loomed ever larger with every passing minute.
Looking down from our seats in the Gods we had a gut-wrenchingly panoramic perspective of Sp*rs winner. Jermaine Jenas hoisted a deepish free kick into the penalty area, Woodgate left his marker Belletti chasing shadows getting to the ball before the advancing Cech who sadly flapped at the ball. It was a schoolboy error from the worlds supposed number one keeper, the ball rebounded off his body, hit Woodgate and dropped into the Chelsea net. 2-1 to Sp*rs.
By the time Avram Grant realised that his charges were in crisis the contest was all but over. The introduction of Joe Cole made a huge difference, suddenly there was a desperate urgency to the Blues play which had been lacking for the majority of the afternoon, but it was to no avail. The sad sight of so-called Chelsea fans heading for the stadiums numerous exits well before the final whistle, when the team were in dire need of all the support and encouragement that could be hollered their way is something that pained me almost as much as the final score itself.
What’s the point in attending a game if you’re not going to get behind your team for the full duration of the match. Not only was this a cup final, but it was a cup final against Chelsea’s long time rivals. Do these people not know their history? Please, please, spare me your excuses … next time just stay at home and watch the game on TV. I’d rather see unsold seats than this kind of disloyal apathy.
The result has fanned the fire of debate that continues to rage over the merits and de-merits of Avram Grant’s capabilities as a first class football coach. Personally, I support Chelsea Football Club and I will shout encouragement for one and all wearing the Blue and the Blue until my vocal chords give out or the referee signals the end of a game whichever is the sooner, but the harsh truth of the matter is that Mr Grant has yet to win a match for the Blues that really matters to the Clubs loyal supporters.
The Carling Cup Final was the first opportunity that Mr Grant has had to pick from a full complement of the embarrassing wealth of talent he has at his disposal. Defensive tactics and a baffling team selection proved his undoing against a well drilled, supremely motivated Sp*rs side. I read today that Avram Grant claimed after the game that his formation was 4-3-3, I’m no football purist but that wasn’t what I saw. Did you?
Mr Grant defended the grossly ineffective pairing of Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka saying, “That was the first time they’ve played together and I think it will be a good combination. It wasn’t an easy game for them today. We always play with a front three, but sometimes with a striker on one side. We wanted to play Anelka on the side because he’s a creative player and quick. They can play together, no question. You can’t pick players like them and say it’s a gamble.”
For God’s sake it’s a cup final man! Save the experiments for matches against the cannon fodder of the Premier League. Even when the Blues were a goal to the good, Sp*rs were dictating the pace of the game and yet Avram Grant did nothing. The timing of his eventual use of the substitutes available to him confounded even my layman’s understanding of the game of football. Joey Cole was ignored until after the game was all but lost and Michael Ballack, Chelsea’s best player of late was kept on the bench until the 88th minute. I wonder if Herr Ballack’s failure to shake the hand offered by Mr Grant on the final whistle was a sign that the Israeli is finding the task of keeping his squad satisfied is proving to be too big an ask for him. I hope not, because if it is then the remainder of Chelsea’s season will surely turn to custard.
All I ask for as a match-going Chelsea fan is that the team that represent the Club I love reciprocate my commitment to the boys in Blue. I didn’t see it at Wembley, and I didn’t really see it out in Greece. Next up West Ham United at Upton Park, the catcalls of ‘1-0 and you f*cked it up’ will no doubt be ringing loudly in our ears as we applaud the players representing our hopes onto the pitch, I hope the message resonates with them as well and we get the performance we hope for and build on it.
As for Mr Grant, I keep my fingers crossed that the steep learning curve he is ascending will not prove beyond him in the coming weeks, if it does then Mr Abramovich must have the courage of his convictions to see beyond his friendship with the ‘Normal One’ and take action in the close season and not before.
Whatever the case may be, it’s win or lose … up the Blues!
See you at the game!
Mark Worrall is the author of cult terrace classics ‘Over Land and Sea’ and ‘Blue Murder … Chelsea till I die’, his new book ‘One Man Went to Mow’ is out now. Copies are available to buy with a discount of up to 30% and free postage within the UK at www.overlandandsea.net