Last night we were found out, exposed, uncovered. It’s been a while coming, but last night a combination of things went wrong that, quite frankly, we’ve been lucky to get away with in the past.
Our substitute keeper, for all his hard work of late, was found left wanting. Our defence played badly and our midfield at times just didn’t play. Claudio Ranieri tinkered with side with such appalling timing that it makes we wonder how he’s got away with it so often in the past. To all intents and purposes, this tie is lost. When Monaco visit the Bridge, we need to win 2-0 or 4-1. It’s hard to see this happening on current form, which for the record over the last four games is: played four, won none, drawn two, lost two. And there we were hoping that Arsenal might collapse, when right in front of our eyes Chelsea have hit a bad run of games that is so bad we will be lucky to hang on to second in the Premiership.
There were three turning points in the match last night. The first came after twenty minutes when Marcel Desailly’s desperate attempts to push the defence forward paid off and we started to take control of the game. Until then, Chelsea had played the match in forty yards of the pitch, all in their own half. We were one down by then to an excellent header that could have been prevented had Mario Melchiot not been standing six feet off his opponent. A few minutes later and Hernan Crespo scored an excellent goal from eight yards in such cool fashion I thought his public announcement that Monaco would be punished for their impudence in coming this far would come true. It was not to be. We played well for the remainder of the first half; not memorably well, but good enough that the commentators of the game thought we were good enough to win. So did I, until half time. During the half-time period I had various phone conversations with people and the consensus was that although Jespar Gronkjaer had played another frustrating first half he was enough of a nuisance in combination with Wayne Bridge to their right side that no changes should be made for at fifteen minutes of the second half. How wrong can you be? Seba Veron, a man who hasn’t played a full game this year, came on for Gronkjaer. This was the second turning point of the game, with the midfield looking for all the world like a bunch of strangers. You can see why, because bringing on an unfit central playmaker for a left winger makes no sense at all, other than the fact that prior to that we had a couple of free kicks from just outside the box that never came close the threatening the Monaco goal.
The third and final notable incident – or nail in the coffin for Ranieri depending on your viewpoint – of the game came when something happened that Chelsea are not known for. Claude Makelele cheated. He had a minor run-in with Andrea Zikos and playfully slapped him on the side of the face. Zikos reacted, but not overly so, and Makelele took two steps and feel to the ground as if struck by lightning. The result was Makelele receiving a yellow card, thus putting him out of the return, and Zikos was on his way to the bench with a red card. It was shameful to watch. Monaco lifted their game and we were never in it after that aside from a few minutes after the incident, and there still forty minutes on the clock.
Then the whole match went the way of the pear. Ranieri, as if bringing Veron on wasn’t enough of a disaster, decided that bringing on Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink for Mario Melchiot would be a good tactical move. One of Wayne Bridge’s crosses found Hasselbaink, who once again was found out at this level and missed a header that, at the very least, should have troubled the keeper. But no, it went wide and soft enough for the keeper to gather it up and pass it while Hasselbaink and Eidur Gudjohnsen bickered over the unfortunate miss. Monaco scored their second from that and although it was an outstanding strike someone needs to tell Marco Ambrosio that standing up is a good tactic against long shots. Parker, who had played well again, was substituted for Robert Huth. The team was completely unbalanced after that and there was only going to be one result. I would have settled for 1-2 but it was not to be. Monaco substitute, Nonda, scored with his first touch of the game. The goal was soft, the keeper was to blame, and our hopes for reaching the final of the Champions League may well have died right there.
Ranieri blames himself for this result, and quite rightly too, but that isn’t the point. What on earth was he thinking in making these changes? Not only were they tactically inept, the timing was appalling. Unbalancing a midfield just when they are getting into the game strikes me as nothing short of suicidal. Now there’s a tactic I hadn’t considered.