If all our games this season are as incident-packed and exciting as last night’s, we can expect a superb and intense ten months. The evening was best summed up by my brother, a Chelsea exile who has spent the past four years in Germany watching Hertha Berlin play in the Bundesliga. “In more than four years of watching German football, I haven’t seen a game come anywhere close to that level of quality,” he said.
He was right. With all the players on view, current or ex-internationals (including the current or ex-captains of England, France, Wales and Ireland), the quality of football on display was simply breathtaking. Even the World Cup, as good as it was, did not contain a game with such a consistent level of skill or quality. While the Premiership may have a little way to go before it can justifiably claim to be the best league in the world, there is no question that it is the most entertaining.
From the Blues’ perspective, a sell out 41,500 crowd (minus the empty executive boxes of course) on a balmy Friday night only added to a huge sense of anticipation for what was the first home game of the season. The crowd was raucous and noisy, and this became louder as quickly as the third minute when a whipped in free kick from Zenden evaded everyone except Gallas, who managed to get a touch on the ball, which flew into the net. It could be argued that Barthez’s replacement, Roy Carroll, should have done better, but nonetheless it was a superb ball from Zenden.
The rest of the first half saw a controlled pass and move game from Chelsea that made United look like chumps. All over the park we were the more focused and composed team. Our passing (and also patience in what was a cauldron of noise) was excellent and brought back memories of some of our better games during the Poyet, Petrescu and Di Matteo era.
Most pleasing was the addition of Enrique De Lucas, or Quique, in the right midfield slot in place of Gronkjaer. A lot of fans have bemoaned the absence of any quality signings this summer, but on tonight’s performance we have a new star in Quique. The fact he was a Bosman-free should not influence anybody’s opinion — after all, Gullit, Vialli and Poyet were free transfers, while Fleck and Sutton broke our transfer records. Need we say more?
Quique looked quick, technically competent, but more importantly his work rate was on a par with Wise in his prime. Quique constantly harassed United and, unlike others we can mention, was not afraid to put his foot in where it hurt. While Gronkjaer’s nose may be put out of joint as he sits on the bench, there is no question that the addition of Quique has made our team more solid, particularly in right midfield. Our right channel was a real problem last season with Melchiot, Gronkjaer and Stanic taking it turns to have a personal ’mare and let the side down — was it any surprise that Fulham and Arsenal concentrated on attacking our right side in the FA Cup semi and final respectively? The addition of Quique could really be the missing link and the portents look good.
As the first half progressed, United bagged a goal completely against the run of play. Silvestre, half way into his own half, pinged a ball diagonally across the pitch that landed at Beckham’s feet on the corner of the penalty box. The England captain and poseur extraordinaire turned inside and let fly a shot that took a cruel deflection off Desailly and looped into the net. A classic counterattack, but a finger (or gun — take your pick) has to be pointed at Baba who went AWOL and left Beckham in acres of space. If Baba continues in his current less-than-rich vein of form, Le Saux is going to walk into the team when he returns from injury.
Chelsea recovered their composure and a minute before half-time a superb move saw Zenden play a one-two with Jimmy before rifling a shot into the top left hand corner of the goal. It was simply a world-class goal that brought Stamford Bridge to its feet. Zenden, until he got tired midway through the second half, had an excellent game. Injured for much of last season, the Dutch international had a superb pre-season and is finally showing the consistent form expected from a £7 million purchase. However, his Dutch compatriot, Jimmy Floyd, could not have looked more disinterested if he had tried. With one eye on Barcelona, he became more and more petulant as the game progressed. Still, in true Jimmy style, a couple of long distance attempts at goal nearly sneaked in at the far post. On another day we could have entered the interval three or four up.
In direct contrast, the second half belonged to United. Fresh from a Ferguson bollocking, they showed far greater intent and purpose. Worryingly, Chelsea seemed intent to hold on to their lead without searching for that killer goal. Ranieri has to learn that this is not Serie A, and trying to defend a one-nil lead against United, Arsenal or Liverpool is folly. Sure enough, it did not take too long before United equalised. Silvestre skinned Quique on the right (his only error) before cutting the ball diagonally inside the penalty box and wrong footing the defence. Giggs simply crashed the ball home.
United had more chances to win the game and in the end Chelsea were lucky to draw. We looked tired and short of ideas, which continued even with the addition of Cole, Gudjohnsen and Gronkjaer. The only bright side was that Quique was able to seamlessly slot into midfield in place of Petit — with our lack of quality midfielders, this is a huge bonus.
Still, it has been a promising start to the season. We lost to Charlton away and Man Utd at home last season so we are already four points in front of last season’s tally on a game-by-game basis. Indeed, if you had offered me four points from our opening two games, I would have ripped your arm off. Yet it could have been more if we had been a bit more ruthless and not settled for a narrow lead.