Bleary eyed at Gatwick airport last Wednesday morning, I’d picked up a copy of the Times to read on the short flight to Bordeaux. With the credit crunch biting, and my travels across Europe watching the Blues this year having all but eroded my holiday entitlement, I’d elected to travel to France on the ‘official’ CFC / Thomas Cook junket.
This hadn’t been the initial choice of our intrepid posse, but Flight Options late cancellation of their day trip had left us with no alternative unless we were prepared to stretch the journey over a couple of days. After the farcical scenes at Stockholm airport which followed the Blues European Cup Winners Cup victory over Stuttgart I’d vowed never to travel on an ‘official’ club package again. A decade on, out of necessity, my pledge with myself was broken, but to be honest with you it was pretty much the last thing on my mind as we’d bordered the plane and departed Blighty on schedule.
Martin Samuel, a seven times winner of Sports Writer of the Year, is the most successful sports journalist of his generation. The Times Chief Football Correspondent was named Sports Journalist of the Year at the 2008 British Press Awards, just weeks after retaining Sports Writer of the Year for the third time in succession … so says the on-line promotional blurb about him.
That’s a fairly impressive set of credentials in anyone’s book, and so you can imagine I’d rubbed my hands with gusto as I came across his article entitled Why the next crisis club could be Chelsea. What would the big beardy fella have in store for his readers? What fascinating evidence and insight could he provide to support his theory? Sadly the answer was not a lot.
What Mr Samuel did very well was over-articulate the concerns of many Chelsea supporters. Simply speaking he told us all what we knew already. With hindsight, what made his article even more interesting was the fact it was based on the following scenario and I quote:- ‘Were results to go against Luiz Felipe Scolari in the next five days, it would represent the greatest emergency the club have faced since that moment last season when Avram Grant lost a late goal, two points and, on the touchline, temporarily, his marbles against Wigan at Stamford Bridge.’
Of course it could have been very different. Last Wednesday, the Blues could have stoutly defended the 1-0 lead which Nicolas Anelka had deftly given them against Bordeaux. Victory guaranteeing qualification to the knock-out phase of the Champions League. Ditto at the weekend, when Chelsea deigned to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory against ‘the’ Arsenal. A win over the Gooners would have cemented the Blues place at the top of the table with the prospect of some comparatively easy fixtures to come over the busy Christmas period.
If Chelsea had hung on to the slender leads that they had enjoyed in both matches, the thoughts provoked by Martin Samuel’s article and those slight concerns we’d all been nurturing over the past couple of weeks would have been consigned to the back of our minds as we all got on with the jollities of the festive period made all the better by being top of the league … yeah we’d have been having a laugh all right.
Ahhh Chelsea, the bittersweet cruel mistress who plays with our emotions and shatters our hopes and dreams.
Samuel told us that Scolari’s Chelsea can be likened to flat-track bullies, mercilessly beating the meek and the mild and failing to stand up and be counted against any side made of sterner stuff. Sadly this remains the case. Chelsea have one point to show for their Premier League endeavours this season against Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal, the three teams who remain their key rivals in the quest for domestic honours. Cause for concern enough, made worse by the fact that all three matches have been played at Stamford Bridge, a once impregnable fortress where angels in football boots feared to tread.
The Burnley debacle, I’d laughed off as a dose of good-old-bad-old glorious unpredictability … that’s old school Chelsea for the uninitiated. A 1-0 lead surrendered to a team of battlers that simply wanted the prize more.
The solitary consolation which followed that desperate draw with Bordeaux at the dank, horrible, freezing Stade Chaban Delmas was the fact that thanks to Thomas Cook I was back in leafy south west London at 2am, several hours earlier than I have managed on a couple of away trips to the grim wastelands of the naughty north this year.
The defeat at the hands of the Gooners was a kick in the proverbial bollocks. Though many Blues fans headed for the exit before the final whistle, I chose to remain until the bitter end. There was something Chelsea-like, Mourinho era esque almost, about the way the Arsenal players celebrated a victory which restablished their title credentials whilst denting those of Scolari’s men.
Wenger’s team showed solidarity in the wake of the Gallas affair and unity with their fans, it was painful to watch. Chelsea by contrast trooped off disconsolately, out-thought, out-played and in the end well beaten. Mr Scolari chose to blame referee Mike Dean and his assistants for the Blues defeat. Arsenal’s equalizer may well have been offside, but their winner was good enough. The bottom line is that his Chelsea side, playing his way, created nothing and never looked liked scoring after Arsenal had taken the game by the scruff of the neck.
With Anelka back to his enigmatic worst, Kalou looking Kalou-less, Deco and Super Frank passing like ships in the night and a defence without Carvalho looking less than assured, it was down to the Blues swashbuckling wing-back Jose Bosingwa to buccaneer down the right flank and mix things up. Chelsea took the lead through Jose’s endeavours, but one man does not make a team and opposing managers are now realising that Big Phil approaches each match with the same strategy.
Love him or loathe him, Chelsea’s enfant terrible, Didier Drogba, watching from the stands as a result of his latest indiscretion, is just the type of player the Blues were crying out for when Arsenal seized the initiative and took the lead. Someone of his caliber on the bench could have made a big difference to the outcome.
The fact that Big Phil chose to use only two substitutes, the laughable Malouda and the unknown Stoch, gave his detractors sufficient ammunition to pound his withering reputation still further. ‘Where is PLAN B?’ they cry … ‘where is PLAN B?’
Where is PLAN B? That’s a good question. Personally I’d like to know what PLAN B is and PLAN C. Chelsea fans are an impatient bunch these days and I wonder how long it will be before the same dissenting voices who chanted ‘you don’t know what you’re doing’ at Scolari’s predecessor Avram Grant will be getting on the Brazilian’s case?
Cast your minds back to last season. Chelsea faced the Gooners at Stamford Bridge in the Premier League still seeking their first win of the season against the usual suspects. After Sagna had given Arsenal the lead on the hour mark, the writing looked on the wall. ‘Jose Mourinho Jose Mourinho’ was the not so rallying cry from sections of the Lower Mathew Harding Stand.
Grant was having none of it though. Time to execute PLAN B. With twenty minutes left he replaced Ballack with Anelka and Makalele with Belletti and switched to 4-4-2. The Mourinho chant morphed into ‘you don’t know what you’re doing’. In true Chelsea fashion, three minutes later Drogba equalized and not long after that the Ivorian scored the winner.
In no way am I trying to make a case for Avram Grant over and above Luiz Felipe Scolari, I’m just simply illustrating a point that sometimes to win games you have to change things around.
Looking at the fixture list and the league table, Chelsea’s hardest remaining games this season are all away from home: Manchester United (January 11), Liverpool (February 1), Villa (February 21) and Arsenal (May 9). Victories must be secured in at least two of those fixtures to give the Blues any chance of the title.
Peter Kenyon said recently that it was ‘extremely unlikely’ that Chelsea would sign any players in the January transfer window. He also stated today that Didier Drogba would not be climbing out of the same window and decamping to Milan and the clutches of the Special One. This being the case then Big Phil needs to work with the squad he has, repair team morale, get inside the Drogs head and sort it out and pray for no more injuries. Not much different then to what Wenger has had to do at Arsenal. As for match strategies, the man has won the World Cup for God’s sake, surely you can’t do that without having PLAN B … or can you? Did he?
There is no crisis at Chelsea Football Club; there was no crisis at Arsenal. Credible journalists like Martin Samuel are just trying to create drama and provoke healthy debate as well as sell a few extra newspapers … it’s what they are paid to do. Leeds United, now that’s what I’d call a crisis.
Meanwhile, in the long hard winter that lies ahead we will find out just how big Phil Scolari really is and whether or not PLAN B really exists. Let’s hope for all our sakes the geezer gets it right and puts a smile back on our faces because I dread to think what PLAN B Mr Abramovich might have in mind.
Keep the Blue Flag flying high.