THIRD IN THE LEAGUE AND HAVING A SNOOZE

By Richard Micallef
Feb 20th, 2008

I start looking forward to Champions League nights the minute our weekend fixture is over. Having endured three and a half decades of watching teams I loathe strut their stuff on European nights, it still takes time for it to sink in that Chelsea are right up there with the football elite involved in the top club competition in the world.

The memories of our exploits in recent years add to the anticipation on the night. The various Barcelona matches, Bayern Munich, Lazio, Feyenoord, Galatasary – they send a tingle down my spine. Then came last night.

After the Rosenborg game, Avram Grant came onto the scene with a promise of expansive, attacking football. Now Grant doesn’t quite come across as a joker, but I think he pulled a fast one on us in his very first interview. And a bloody nasty joke it was too. Under Grant our football is such that for the return match against Olympiakos a fortnight today, I will spend some time deciding whether to watch the return leg of yesterday’s game or the 50th re-run of Blackadder the Third on UK Gold. Once that’s over I’ll have another decision to make. Do I turn over to the match or watch the same episode again on UK Gold +1?

Yesterday it reached the stage when for the first time in my forty third year of watching Chelsea I actually fell asleep during the game, waking up just in time to watch the start of the England – New Zealand cricket match. Watching the very short highlights on Skysports News this morning, I was thrilled to see that in the 94th minute of the game we actually made a goalscoring chance, which Kalou fluffed. That was an improvement on the recent Liverpool game when we failed to create one single decent chance throughout the game.

I thought that Sky, so full of Liverpool’s victory over Inter, might have skimmed over the highlights of our match, so I had a quick look at the papers to see what I had missed during my 20 minute nap.

I started with The Guardian – “Dour Chelsea gain upper hand” it reported. Next was The Mail – “Chelsea’s tactics stifled the game as a spectacle” and “negotiated the match successfully if unspectacularly”. The Telegraph probably was most precise – “dour display” and “Chelsea were poor as they have been all season lacking shape, width and attacking threat” At which point I decided to give the red tops a miss.

I keep on hearing that Avram Grant’s record is identical to Mourinho’s. Last night was Grant’s 34th match in charge. In these matches we have scored more than 2 goals in a match a staggering 6 times. Further proof of our intent on producing sparkling, entertaining football lies in the fact that against Premiership opposition we have scored more than 2 goals in a match twice, against Villa and Man City. So come on guys, who are we kidding?

Grant has taken Jose’s team and turned it into a sleep machine. We don’t only not score, we hardly create chances. I cannot be bothered to fish out my Rothmans (I think it’s Sky now) Football Yearbook for season 2004/5 to compare the number of goals we scored in Jose’s first 34 matches but I remember distinctly that as soon as Robben had come into the team we went on a run where we were averaging over 2 goals a game. Even when Robben went out injured, Joe Cole had come in and the goals kept coming. And they came against the big teams too – four against Barca and Bayern Munich, three against Liverpool in the Carling Cup Final and Man United at Old Trafford. I am sure it hasn’t escaped anyone’s attention that we have yet to score a goal in 3 league matches against Liverpool, Arsenal and Man United. The 2 we got against Liverpool in the Carling Cup were against a much weakened team.

The talk of a quadruple has never seemed more pie in the sky than it does this morning. On current performances we will be lucky to win the Carling Cup. The crime is that we have the players to do it. It’s just that the players are obviously told to hold back during our attacks. Balls played to our full backs are inevitably square on rather then ahead of them to take in their stride. Our midfielders pass the ball backwards much more than they do forward. The lone central striker is often left to forage alone as the wide players seem wary of joining attacks.

In one attack last night, Malouda was nearly one on one with their last defender. Five seconds later it was with Carvalho 2 yards outside our penalty area with ten Greeks behind the ball.

I have in previous contributions bemoaned the loss of our three most creative players under Jose’ – Robben, Duff and Eidur and I will do it again. We cannot afford to sell our best players and replace them with journeymen like Pizarro and Sidwell. Avram Grant has to free up players like Belletti and Ashley Cole. I wonder what Barca fans and the Gooners think when they see these 2 players in action for us.

The time has come to radically rethink the whole formation. Stick Anelka alongside Drogba up front. Give Joe Cole a free role behind them and forbid them to come into our half except at opponents set pieces. Remind our midfielders that by passing the ball back all the time, it just gives our opponents time to regroup and makes creating chances that much more difficult. Maka does a great job in the holding midfield role. Why was Essien alongside him all night yesterday?

We have the players. Now we need the style. If not they might as well put blankets and camomile tea in place of the flags on the seats for the next Champions League match at The Bridge.

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