Chelsea’s miserable November came to an end yesterday after a turgid 1-1 draw with Newcastle United at a snowy St James’ Park. Andy Carroll’s early tap-in after some particularly self-destructive Chelsea defending was cancelled out by a deflected Salomon Kalou shot just before the interval. Despite having the whole second half to find a winner the Blues yet fired blanks in front of goal and returned to London for the first time this season not at the top of the league.
The Newcastle ground staff and volunteers worked wonders to clear the pitch and the surrounding areas around the stadium in order that the game could go ahead, although the lack of overnight snow on Saturday certainly helped the cause. The visitors were again without Terry, Lampard and Essien and it showed. Newcastle too were struggling on the personnel front; a combination of punches and elbows put paid to Colloccini, Williamson and Barton’s involvement in this game whilst captain fantastic Kevin Nolan was injured. That meant rare starts for Newcastle’s reserve centre-backs Sol Campbell and Stephen Taylor.
If Chelsea were hoping that Newcastle’s spine would prove as damaged as their own they were to be disappointed. An early set-piece almost gave the Geordies the lead in the second minute when Taylor’s free header was well kept out by Cech before the inimitable Shola Ameobi fired wide. Newcastle didn’t have to wait long for the game’s opening goal. Mikel won the ball back after initially giving it away in midfield but his toe-poked tackle almost set Carroll through on goal; fortunately Alex was there to cover. Somewhat less fortunate was his back-pass, too hard and wide of the committed Cech. The ball rolled agonisingly past him and Carroll, with the momentum and not having to change direction unlike the keeper, burst through to tap into an empty net. If a goal could sum up Chelsea’s recent woes, this was it.
Chelsea tried to respond through Drogba but his fierce left-volley shot was saved by Tim Krul into the side netting. A short corner almost reaped its rewards by Alex’s well-placed header was cleared off the line, and Kalou find too many Newcastle bodies in his way to finish off the rebound. The game then entered a really turgid period with neither side seemingly capable of retaining possession or offering any quality when it mattered. Neutrals would be forgiven for thinking they were watching two teams fighting a relegation battle.
Just when the cold was sending some fans to sleep Chelsea were denied a very clear penalty three minutes before half time. A neat flick from the delightful Florent Malouda released a bursting Ashley Cole into the box. The left-back was upended by Check Tiote but referee Andre Marriner ignored the Englishman’s appeals, interestingly not booking him for diving either. Chelsea must have felt their equaliser two minutes later was justice. Again Malouda was at his best, flicking Mikel’s pass into Kalou’s path. The Ivorian, who started the move, twisted and turned past Campbell before firing into the bottom corner with the aid of a deflection. The travelling Chelsea faithful, cold and hungover, had witnessed our first league goal in nearly three weeks.
Chelsea started the second half better, with Drogba forcing a fine save from Krul but it was Newcastle who went closest through Routledge, his volley dramatically but no less impressively cleared off the line by Cole after Cech’s weak punch. At this stage Michael Emanalo could be clearly seen on TV screens offering Carlo Ancelotti some expert advice. It clearly helped Branislav Ivanovic who attacked a near-post corner well but could only head straight at Krul. Drogba scored a fine goal on the turn but it was disallowed for handball. Kalou bundled his way past Taylor and Krul with twelve minutes to play but the Ivorian inexplicably missed the gaping goal, and by some distance too. Chelsea’s best chance to win the game had gone. Substitute Daniel Sturridge wasn’t far wide immediately after coming on but in truth the final ten minutes were a more open affair with Newcastle looking relatively dangerous on the counter-attack, at least enough to keep the Blues defence occupied.
If the season had started in November Chelsea would be fourth from bottom with a meagre four points from a possible fifteen and with a depressing goal difference of minus five. In that same time Manchester United have made up ten points on the champions and Arsenal eight. On the bright side, Terry, Essien and even Lampard are due to return soon, with the former two certainly in with a strong chance of facing Everton on Saturday, a side in even worse form than ourselves at the moment. Perhaps analysts were wrong to cite December (Tottenham, Man Utd, Arsenal) as the month Chelsea would slip up in; it was November (Liverpool, Sunderland, Birmingham and Newcastle). Perhaps.