The world cup didn’t get off to the best of starts for the Chelsea contingent. Injuries have robbed the tournament of two of its brightest African stars in Michael Essien and Obi Mikel. Also at the treatment table this summer is Michael Ballack who is no doubt missing his last chance to play on the world stage. This was followed by scares to Drogba and old boy Robben (still looking like an old boy), with some question marks remaining on their involvement. The Chelsea injury curse so far has yet to claim anymore casualties. However the list of Blues players in the competition has been reduced further still with Joe Cole and Ballack strangely released on a free and the promising Miroslav Stoch shipped off to Fenebahce. I don’t know about anybody else but the Chelsea website last week read like the news page on Championship Manager, the addictive computer game for football geeks. Just like the game the opening text was oddly formulaic, Chelsea Football Club can confirm Ballack will be leaving the club upon the expiration of his contract at the end of this month. The midfielder has spent four years at Chelsea, and all at the club would like to place on record our thanks for his service and wish him luck for the future. It may be that the combined wage bills of Cole and Ballack was something the club couldn’t sustain with the new FIFA finance regulations coming to the fore. Many fans will still be hopeful that these world class players will be replaced with like for like. Let’s hope Roman and Carlo are compiling a shopping list whilst sinking beers during the world cup.
First up on Friday night was Les Bleus and our own Nicolas Anelka was starting in, what was surprisingly, his first world cup. More surprising than this though was Raymond Domenech’s dim decision to put French form player Malouda on the bench after an alleged pre-match spat. Anelka led the line well without excelling, often he floated to the flanks to link up play but France too often lacked an edge. It was Diego Forlan who poised the most threat for Uruguay. There was little support from midfield, Govou particularly lamentable but Arsenal’s Diaby had a stormer in the centre. Domenech’s school of idiotic coaching then saw Anelka subbed for Henry when both players should have been used to chase a much needed goal. Malouda was introduced soon after and immediately shone on the right side, offering more energy and trickery than much of the previous match. In truth it was a bland game and it appears Chelsea’s stars will have to shine in spite of their coach, rather than because of him, if France are to deliver in the tournament.
With Mikel missing the next Chelsea involvement was in England’s first group match in Rustenburg. Capello had some major decisions to make with his line up and unfortunately all of them appeared to backfire. Ledley King partnered JT in the centre, despite going AWOL for a free kick, he did ok but his injury ravaged limbs couldn’t make a second forty five. Milner was preferred to Joe Cole on the left, after an embarrassing thirty minutes he was quickly subbed for former Blue Shaun Wright-Phillips. Joe might have, just about, played more than forty five minutes in a friendly on the left side and would have to be puzzled why he was twiddling his thumbs on the bench all night. Wright-Phillips team instructions appeared to be ‘run the ball out at the nearest opportunity’, he speedily headed to the whitewash with aplomb throughout. The much derided Emile Heskey started up front, after some nifty link up play (in particular for the opening goal), he returned to form and missed a one on one sitter. Finally West Ham’s Green was chosen ahead of James and Joe Hart and produced as an inept a mistake as you’re ever likely to see at this level. There has been much talk on the new Jabulani ball and it’s apparent erratic flight. Much for his own self-confidence, Rob Green would do well to cling to this kind of excuse better than a Clint Dempsey back pass.
Stand out Chelsea performer was Frank Lampard, who did much to deflate the myth that him and Gerrard can’t play together. Frank stroked the ball about expertly, was greatly involved in England’s better passages of play and also came close with some familiar, stinging drives from outside the box. The armband seemed to give Gerrard the impetus he needed in an England shirt, it was a lung busting midfield display with some crunching tackles and much improved drive. John Terry was as commanding as ever, winning anything that was thrown his way. He also did well to marshal the ever changing backline. Jamie Carragher’s display was cumbersome enough to give Michael Dawson a shout of starting the next game. Ashley Cole was steady but was restricted in having to cover the USA’s Dempsey, and deal with the Muppet Show ahead of him that was Milner and Wright-Phillips. Although he did well Cole can offer more going forward, likewise Terry’s surges from the back weren’t as much in evidence. As the urgency to attack increases further into the tournament we can expect the shackled to be loosened and see a little bit more in the final third from Ashley Cole.
Sunday saw Serbia take on Ghana in Pretoria. Nicely trying to fill an Essien-shaped hole in the midfield was the innovative Asamoah and athletic Ayew. Both players are in their early twenties and will no doubt be attracting the scouts of some of Europe’s bigger clubs. Ivanovic, much like Serbia, was solid at the back but a bit uninspiring going forward, Ayew and Gyan restricting him at right back. What I’ve seen of Krasic in the Champions league has been very impressive but Ghana’s hustle meant his game was also subdued. If you though Vidic and Ivanovic were big units, check out Birmingham’s new striker Nikola Zigic, a 6’8 beanpole in the Peter Crouch ‘he’s got good feet for a big man’ mould. Harshly reduced to ten men Serbia battled well and looked at their most dangerous when Kuzmanovic handed them a penalty in the final ten minutes. A bit like Ash we’d like to see a few more surges into the opponents half next time from Ivanovic please. Still to play their first games are the Portugese boys and the African favourites Ivory Coast, hopefully all the Chelsea lads will be on show in Tuesday’s Group G game.