If ever confirmation was needed that the FA Cup is in decline, you just needed to look at the swathes of empty seats dotted around Stamford Bridge today. In yonder years, an FA Cup fourth round tie between Chelsea and West Ham would have sold out in hours. This year you could not give the tickets away. It is not just happening at Chelsea. Nobody at the game could fail to notice during the pre-match pub booze-up that ’Boro only had seventeen people at their home match with Man United, and ten of them were in corporate hospitality munching on prawn sarnies.
There are many reasons why the FA Cup is declining. The strength and sheer quality of the Premiership has not helped — witness the full house for the Leeds and West Ham league games either side of our fourth round tie. In addition, whereas the FA Cup used to be a by-word for ‘underdogs’, ‘cup upsets’ and ‘unpredictability’, teams like ’Boro now know that they will eventually meet Chelsea or Arsenal and get their hides spanked. The only solution to regain the drama and importance of the FA Cup will be to give the winners a Champions League place. Now that would be an incentive.
As for today’s game, a big mouldy fishfinger must be presented to Captain Birdseye for giving the Harding Lower to the away fans. Hello? What better way to ruin the atmosphere than by splitting up all the hardcore fans and replacing them with the opposition? What was wrong with the Upper West Stand and charging them all £75? What was wrong with the Upper East Stand? Captain Birdseye made a big, big mistake as those of us sitting in the Harding Upper thought we were at an away match, such was the noise coming from beneath us.
The game started off on a shocking pitch, although three games a week (many at home) since December 1st has hardly helped. That, coupled with the pall of gloom hanging over the Bridge after Wednesday’s defeat, combined with the raucous Hammers fans, made this game a difficult one to predict despite the Hammers’ 5-1 thrashing by us a week earlier.
Ranieri’s team selection must have baffled even himself. Why meddle with a team that a week earlier played the same opposition off the park? Ol’ Clownio just cannot help himself and the great tinkerer dropped one half of the Premiership’s best partnership (Gudjohnsen) and played Forssell instead. Although Forssell played well, he missed a couple of chances in the first half that Eidur would have buried. In one of them, Hasselbaink, with a beautifully deft piece of play, eased past the Hammers’ defence and passed to Forssell. Mikael delayed his shot fatally and was tackled. A few minutes later Zola pinged a glorious ball over the heads of the Hammers’ defence only for Forssell to delay his run for fear of being caught offside. Still, overall Forssell played with great promise, but whether he will eventually make first choice is up in the stars.
Chelsea had 60 per cent possession in the first half. Surely enough, that dominance was rewarded by perhaps one of the best goals ever seen at the Bridge. Forssell headed on a goal-kick to Jimmy wide on the right. With three defenders covering him, Jimmy ran with the ball to the corner of the area before stopping and turning inside. The Hammers’ defender gave Jimmy too much respect and a full twenty-five yards out Jimmy let rip. From the Harding Upper Tier, it looked like Jimmy’s shot was on an upward trajectory to Mars, especially as David James did not move. However, to the shock of the crowd, the ball hit the top right hand corner of the net. It was simply a world-class goal and capped a display by Jimmy that was one of the best seen at the Bridge by a striker. Put simply, Jimmy stood head and shoulders above anyone else on the park, save perhaps for Zola who was also different class.
The rest of the first half should have seen us finish off the Hammers, but sloppy finishing and bad luck would see us pay dear later on. That bad luck was emphasised within two minutes of the re-start when Jimmy pinged a superb chip to Lampard on the right of the area who connected first time with a volley. It was a good shot that left James helpless. Unfortunately, the ball grazed the wrong side of the post.
As the match wore on, you could see that Chelsea were going to settle for a draw. The great tinkerer made a few substitutions late on and as the players got tired on the heavy surface the game opened up. The Hammers pressed with Chelsea looking to break and score. One such break saw Eidur gallop down the right and pass to Zola whose low shot was only just saved by James. Seconds later, a free kick on the edge of the Blues’ box saw Claudio urgently substitute Petit for Jokanovic. With the defence all at sea, not knowing who to mark, Carrick slammed the ball into the penalty area and the ping pong rebounds saw the ball land to Kanoute who could not miss. The next day’s newspaper headline said ‘Claud cuckoo land’. Who can argue?