The trouble with Chelsea easing into ‘ominous’ form is that, even when owed to a Jon Obi Mikel goal – his second of a remarkable season – a win is not nearly enough to satisfy the sub-editors and maintain their affections, what with another “diving storm” flickering its eyelids somewhere over the would-be interviewee’s shoulder.
Symptoms of Jose Mourinho’s conquerors of old resurfaced with another win and a fourth clean sheet in five across the board at the iPro Stadium on Sunday as the Blues deservedly triumphed 2-0 over a determined Derby County to set up a meeting with Stoke City at Stamford Bridge in Round Four of the FA Cup.
But it was the actions of Ramires, who became the second Brazilian Blue to be cautioned for simulation in as many matches, which so stirred those self-proclaimed champions of the beautiful game among the press pack to focus their appraisals on a ropy fall, in so doing, ignoring the performance of a side containing four outstanding Samba stars, the pick of whom, arguably, was Oscar, the man previously derided for theatrics against Southampton. Not to mention their outright disdain for Mikel’s acceptance to the SW6 ‘300’ Club, the Nigerian’s unintended elevation into captaincy and consequent match-winning London bus impersonation.
Admittedly, Mourinho does his bit on this front. The Special One has an ever-so-slight habit of diverting words from his and everyone else’s football onto some whimsical agenda. But he can quit any time he wants. Honest.
Besides, on this occasion he had no use for such tactics, as evidenced by his touchline love-in with opposite number Steve McClaren, who paraded his much-lauded experience abroad by braving the air’s moisture without his trademark accessory. Chelsea’s was a splendid showcase of away-day stamina and solidity, sprinkled with just the right quota of quality at exactly the appropriate moments; an exercise in banana skin-dodging carried out before an expectant crowd of over 30,000.
A managerial change has coincided with a timely upturn in fortune for the Rams under McClaren and their recent surge up the Championship table offered hope of an historic odds-toppler here.
However, the visitors’ pressure eventually paid dividends, albeit through the least glamorous of their vast ensemble of potential sources. In any event, the arrival of Eden Hazard proved suitably significant to bring the free kick from which the immense athlete and artist Willian whipped a devilish centre onto the brow of Mikel, whose timely dash meant he couldn’t miss as he glanced beyond a stranded Lee Grant in County’s goal.
With that breakthrough, a once well-balanced contest suddenly appeared decidedly asymmetrical. The signs were there: a late, leggy Will Hughes tackle on Oscar on the hour; a sluggish reaction to an improvised set-piece that saw all four Brazilians combine soon after; the weariness with which Hazard was felled for the opener with only a quarter of this vigorous fixture left to play.
The mazy Ramires run that led to all the post-match tumult was itself testament to the undying endurance of the guests’ approach that, before long, led to any doubt as to the game’s outcome being vanquished. Oscar’s intervention capped another wonderful concoction of gritty labour and classy manipulation amidst his afternoon’s endeavour with a goal that highlighted the extent to which Chelsea had worn down their hosts. It came from a Cesar Azpilicueta throw, a simple knock-down from Hazard and a hopeful attempt from the South American that ought to have been stopped but that bullied its way inside the goalkeeper’s near post in spite of his desperate efforts.
There was something intimidating and yet, ultimately, endearing about the refusal among Blues players, staff and fans alike to yield in their quest for further reward. After all, there was no Frank Lampard on show, no Branislav Ivanovic , still no Marco Van Ginkel, all still injured. Perhaps more pertinently, there was no Juan Mata, John Terry or Petr Cech, none of whom were required to leave the technical area. Andre Schurrle, Kevin De Bruyne and Demba Ba did not travel despite their apparent availability.
Mourinho exhaled predictable platitudes when referring to “a difficult game”, “big risk” and the need for “extra intensity” in his comments afterwards. It was his substitution that ensured his players “got the message” and finally unlocked the hitherto double-bolted door in Derby, following sustained yet unsuccessful stints of stretching the East Midlanders’ backline.
One feels, however, that those reporting his utterances are in greater need of explanation as to their impact. It will take more than a nudge and a wink, it seems, to underline the fact that negative headlines merely aid the infamous siege mentality carefully fostered for so long by the Portuguese and re-route attention away from the overwhelming momentum building behind this often entertaining and increasingly effective Chelsea team.