I would like to take this opportunity to wish all CFCNET readers a happy new year. Well, maybe not. In fact, definitely not. I would prefer to rewind to New Year’s Eve and continually loop it like an out-take from the film ‘Groundhog Day’. Anything rather than have to revisit 4.45pm on 1st January 2002.
Just writing about this game is painful enough — the kind of pain inflicted when a dentist misses your teeth and skewers your gums by mistake. If I told you that at 4.30pm the Southampton fans were chanting “we want five”, you will probably get some idea of the grief inflicted not only on the Harding Upper but the whole ground, save the away section.
The game started tamely enough. A disappointing New Year’s Day crowd of 35,000, nursing hangovers and potbellies, sat in muted silence as the game kicked off with Chelsea attacking the Shed End. With the temperature barely above freezing all hopes were pinned on Chelsea finishing the job quickly, leaving the Upper Tier with an extended half time drink in the warmth of Dixon’s or Tambling’s.
However, the world came crashing down as soon as the seventh minute. To be fair, it was the best goal seen at the Bridge since Stanic’s one and only contribution in August 2000. A stupid mistake saw the ball go out for a corner. The subsequent clearance saw a free kick awarded to the Saints approximately thirty-five yards out. The Southampton striker Beattie (who Chelsea made a bid for last summer) stepped up and curled a spectacular shot into the top corner.
Cudicini simply had no chance — it was an awesome strike.
The Blues then stepped up a gear and the first half was an entertaining battle between two sides that wanted to win. Plaudits have to go to Gordon Strachan who, even before the game, said that his Saints team would come to the Bridge seeking a victory. Those words seemed hollow when Babayaro and Le Saux combined superbly on the left and a whipped-in cross saw Hasselbaink flick the ball on for Gudjohnsen to tap home. Hasselbaink then wasted a glorious one-on-one opportunity to take the lead but blasted his angled shot over the bar. However, just before half time a clever through ball by Gudjohnsen put Jimmy clean through and he made no mistake to put us 2-1 up.
Events after half time will certainly feature in the ‘What happened next’ section of future issues of A Question of Sport. Fans are divided about how the best defence in the league can ship three goals in forty-five minutes against perennial relegation strugglers. Personally, I am looking at Inspector Clouseau in the Chelsea dugout. While there is no doubt that Ranieri has not only saved his skin but is beginning to win over his detractors following victories against United, Leeds, Newcastle (twice) and Liverpool, in this match he cocked things up. At the interval he made, on the face of it, a wise substitution by substituting Mario ‘AWOL’ Stanic but then undid all the good work by bringing on Jokanovic. The subsequent change in midfield that saw Lampard move out to the right upset the balance of the team and within half an hour of the restart we were 2-4 down.
The goals themselves were all executed brilliantly. John Terry, for one, cab no longer believe his own publicity after a clever pass from Paul Williams saw the ball fly over his head and land at the feet of Marion Pahars. The player with the girl’s name promptly skinned Terry like a starving butcher wreaking havoc on a rabbit. Pahars drilled a low shot across Cudicini to draw the Saints level.
Strachan then went for the kill by moving the Saints up the pitch and compressing the midfield. It was a tactical masterstroke and when Saints went 2-3 up after Marsden headed in a poorly cleared corner, you just knew that it was game over.
A muffled cheer went up as Zola entered the fray, but the substitution of Baba left the defence even more exposed. When Joka lost the ball (again), Pahars rifled in a low cross and Beattie volleyed in the fourth. Cue swathes of empty Upper Tier seats and chants of “we want five” echoing around the ground. Happy bloody new year to you too.
The following evening’s television and next day’s press all made light of Chelsea’s inability to beat poorer opposition. The Mirror simply said: “Chelsea concede title bid over for another year.” Even worse was the Telegraph’s assertion that Chelsea were never championship contenders, but remain an “entertaining Vaudeville act”. There is no doubt that we are a few players short. Stanic should be sold and Petit told to stop being a French tart and play more regularly. As for Joka, he is not that good but certainly does not deserve the vitriol of the crowd.
In fact, the most disappointing aspect of this game was the part of the Harding Upper, which booed vociferously towards the end of the game. Heaven help us. Was it only New Year’s Day seven years ago that a 3-1 away victory at Swindon lifted us off the bottom of the table? People have short memories and I would like to remind every fan watching Chelsea that we never, ever, EVER boo our own players. It is written in our constitution. People who boo during the match make themselves look silly – yes, we know who you are and we know that you are glory hunters. Go back to Spurs please because it is becoming noticeable that the atmosphere is better when we only have 27,000 in the ground (witness Levski Sofia at home). I can only assume we have 9.000 muppet, prawn sandwich-eating fans. Still, Bates did want to turn us into the Man Utd of the South.