They came, not exactly in their droves, from the smog-ridden city of Middlesbrough with one thing on their minds. A clue might be that not only did they play the first half of this game with their entire team behind the ball, but they tried at half time to get the team bus on the pitch to block the goal completely. More mind numbing was the fact that they were time-wasting from as early as the first minute. Never have I seen a team take so long to take a throw in or corner with just a few minutes on the clock.
The opening paragraph might give you a feeling that I was unimpressed by the monsters from the land of smog, and you would be right. Sure they were well organised, and sure we did not score in a minute, but I had expected more from a team managed by such a “top coach”. Maybe they were shocked to find that grass down south is green and that when it gets dark we have lights that go on at the touch of a switch.
It did not help the cause, of course, that they took to the field with twelve men. Every time I see a referee give an inept performance, I think it is the worst that I have ever seen. This time around, I can only think that Mr P Dowd (who?) got confused into thinking that he could only give fouls to the team in red, as we truly got very close to bugger all out of him. Add to the pot a linesman (or referee’s assistant, whichever you prefer) who decided to wave his flag for offside every time we got into their half of the pitch, and the omens were not good.
The ’Boro tactics bother me because it showed up that we do still have real difficulties in breaking down sides that come to defend. We were limited (by our own limitations) to very few efforts in that long — very long — first 45 minutes. Eidur had a shot go wide, Manu hit a volley two yards wide and Zola had his side-footed effort tipped over the bar. Incredibly, ’Boro actually had the best chance when Maccarone (hate his cheese dish) saw Carlo save from him twice.
The second 45 saw a tactical switch by Ranieri, with the Gronk coming on for Jody. The game suddenly came to life just two minutes in, when a superb ball from Zola (of course) was controlled well by Baba who pushed past the defender and smashed the ball with real venom into the back of the ’Boro net — with his right foot! That was Baba’s first goal for about three years and the celebrations that followed certainly took that into account.
’Boro had no choice then but to open up and try to repair the damage. That they did not speaks volumes for the pairing of Gallas and Desailly, and also that Boro are simply not as good as they think they are. Until Baba’s, strike Boro had the best defence in the league (in terms of goals conceded), but they have only the tenth best attack, and that certainly showed.
There were a few light scares. Whelan had an effort well saved by Carlo, Geremi’s free-kick suffered the same fate and Boksic volleyed over with about five minutes left. We did have many more chances in the second 45, but our finishing was not really up to standard. Truth is, of course, that this mattered little. Without ever really being stretched, we managed to put another three points on the board and maintain our excellent run of results.
Not having conceded any goals in the last five league games says a lot for the confidence that is seemingly running through the team. If things keep going like this, we will all start dreaming of a top-three spot. Heck, I might even forgive Claudio for the continued strange tactic of playing Soxy on the right.
Chelsea line-up: Cudicini — Melchiot, Gallas, Desailly, Babayaro — Le Saux (Terry, 85), Lampard, Petit, Morris (Gronkjaer, 45) — Gudjohnsen (Hasselbaink, 76), Zola
Unused subs: Pidgely, de Lucas