When Claudio Ranieri packs his bags this summer for a new job with a fraction of the pressure of the current one, he will wonder whether his biggest mistake was not buying a top goalkeeper during the spending spree after Roman’s arrival.
Today’s defeat left us nine points behind Arsenal, but without Carlo Cudicini’s howler at Highbury and Neil Sullivan’s clanger today, the gap would be just three.
Yes, I know, the what ifs count for nothing, but we all know that when the injury reports were rolling in before this game, the most important were not Duff, Crespo, Henry, Ashley Cole or Gilberto, it was the news that Cudicini would be out. The only cover was Sullivan, an over-the-hill goalie whose recent clean sheets in the league had not disguised his inability to play at this level any more.
So it was that on 21 minutes a routine Arsenal corner saw Sullivan misjudge the ball so completely that he wasn’t even in a position to flap at it as it sailed over his head. A ricochet later and Edu banged the loose ball into the empty net. We ran ourselves into the ground after this setback, but when Eidur Gudjohnsen received his second yellow card for a foolish tap of Clichy’s ankles, the game was over. We still pressed forward with 10 men, but like last week we never really looked like snatching the equaliser.
Yet, the game as always against Arsenal had opened magnificently with Geremi stealing the ball from Vieira after 20 seconds, steaming down the left and crossing for Mutu to head on to an unmarked Gudjohnsen at the far post. A one-goal start.
For nearly 15 minutes after that we kept up the pressure and Arsenal looked rattled. Geremi and Bridge were playing on the left like they had been together all season and Mutu and Gudjohnsen were buzzing around a concerned Campbell and Toure.
Then the most experienced man on the field handed back our advantage, Makalele, as he too often does, lingered on the ball and allowed Vieira to dispossess him in his own half. The ball went to Bergamp as Vieira steamed through the middle unnoticed until too late by Gallas. A perfectly weighted pass with the outside of Bergamp’s foot, left Vieira one on one with Sullivan and the game was tied.
Chelsea went right down the other end and a Geremi cross left Gudjohnsen with a clear header at the far post, but a brilliant headed block by Clichy prevented us regaining the lead.
Even Sullivan’s mistake didn’t deflate the men in blue and a great one-two with Gudjohnsen allowed Geremi to the byline. He pulled the ball back to the only red shirt that could prevent another goal.
Another flurry of dangerous attacks ensued and Terry tamely stabbed the ball at Lehmann after being left one-on-one with the keeper and Gallas alone in front of goal.
What turned out to be an important moment came after 41 minutes when a slick Chelsea move saw Gudjohnsen lose control as he turned inside an Arsenal defender in the box. The Icelander flicked his left leg out in classic Pires mode and flung himself to the ground, earning a yellow card from referee Mike Riley.
We ended the half with another flurry of pressure with Bridge having a goal-bound shot deflected by a last-ditch Gilberto tackle and Geremi heading a corner wide. After last week’s second-half collapse, it was important that we started the second well. We did. Mutu was sent clear but instead of shooting past the advancing Lehmann, he did his typical check back move that these days seems to fool only himself. He slipped, allowing a covering defender to clear. As the hour-mark approached, a driven Geremi free kick left Gallas alone in front of goal, but he missed his flick and the ball ran wide.
Then Gudjohnsen suffered a moment of madness as Clichy crossed the halfway line with the ball. The forward tapped the defender’s ankles, a second soft yellow card was produced and the game to all intents and purposes was lost. Despite the crowd’s cry of “2-1 to the referee”, Riley really didn’t have much choice.
And so, on such tiny actions, are fates decided.
Ranieri will now — barring a Champions League trophy — be gone and there will be those who say it won’t be soon enough.
There are grumbles about his team selection here, although I fail to see what other lineup would have been better. Geremi amply justified his inclusion and provided far more menace on the left than Gronkjaer would have and can we really have forgotten Hasselbaink’s inept performance last Sunday?
After Gudjohnsen’s red card, Ranieri brought on Gronkjaer for Parker and I would have preferred to see Parker move back to replace Makelélé. When chasing the game, Makelélé is limited. His passes lack authority and he seems to need too much time to bring the ball under control. No doubt, the manager was thinking we needed him more than ever because of the threat of Arsenal breaking at speed against our undermanned midfield.
With 20 minutes to go Mutu was replaced by Hasselbaink and Joe Cole came on for Geremi. Again, I would have said Makelélé was the better option to be replaced. (With 10 minutes to go Makelélé and Pires went for a 50-50 ball and Pires came up with it, something akin to Gronkjaer beating Vieira in a challenge. It shouldn’t happen.)
For all the crushing disappointment of the result, I thought most of the boys in blue played well, especially the entire back four. Thierry Henry proved as effective as Reyes in the first half of the Cup game and Pires was as marginal as Gronkjaer on an off day. If there was a notable difference it was again Vieira who dominated while Lampard did not.
With Manure almost in free-fall after a draw at Old Trafford with a weak Leeds, I’ll be looking for a second-place finish and a strong run in Europe for the rest of the season. With Duff, Crespo and Cudicini back, we’ll see whether we can be that dominating team of which we dream.
Unfortunately, even if we dazzle for the remaining weeks, it will almost certainly be too late to save Ranieri, a man I believe we will learn to appreciate far more when he’s gone — not least for trying to build a team to last rather than a shooting star.