This game took a long time to come around, more than three months in fact. By Sunday morning I was chomping at the bit, desperate for the new season to start in the belief that Ranieri was constructing a team capable of challenging for honours. With the added spice of a newly completed stadium, a crowd in excess of 40,000, Sky’s first ever pay-per-view game and a new seat in the Harding Upper, the ingredients were there for a dynamite afternoon. By 4pm I realised that I was watching Chelsea. Some things never change.
It all started off so well. With Petit, Zenden and Lampard making their home debuts, the boys got off to a cracking start. With the crowd in full voice and with the new west stand keeping the noise in the stadium, the Blues pushed forward looking for an early goal. It did not take long before our new Dutchman shot us ahead. A short Zola corner found Zenden on the edge of the box. He cut inside and from the outside of the box shot a powerful drive at Given, who should have saved the shot easily. However, just like Taibi from Le Tissier at Old Trafford a few seasons ago, Given fumbled the ball and it crept over the line. 1-0.
This was the start we were looking for. Sustained attacks then saw Given make amends for his howler by blocking a point blank effort from John Terry, sliding in to meet a Zola free kick. It was all Chelsea for the first twenty minutes. Zenden looked world class and along with Petit stood head and shoulders above anyone else on the pitch. And that was as good as it got.
The cracks started showing when Terry was taken off injured to be replaced by Gallas. Our new signing from Marseille played adequately, but it was clear that our defence had more holes in it than a Swiss cheese. The midfield, with Lampard tepid at best, failed to maintain early pressure and the team started looking disjointed. Someone remarked that we looked like the Inter Milan of the Premier League – great players but no team. And that summed it up.
The second half started half even more poorly. A patched up Newcastle, minus Shearer, Dyer, Solano and Speed, should have been there for the taking. But an increasingly sloppy Chelsea display saw the Geordies take control. The equaliser, on 77 minutes, was a disgrace. You firstly have to ask yourself what de Goey was doing in goal in the first place. He had not played a first team game since last Boxing Day yet found himself ahead of Bosnich. He had been dropped in the first place because of displays such as those at Bradford, Ipswich and Coventry at home had made him a liability. Yet there he was with the number one shirt on his back and spilling more balls than a juggler with Parkinson’s disease.
That the goal originated from a foul by Jokanovic made it even worse. A Joka not just by name, he came on for Zenden to a crescendo of boos – a bit like swapping Pele for Gareth Hall. An exaggeration perhaps, but Ranieri was left in no doubt as to the crowd’s feelings. Joka was put on to shore up the midfield, but a sloppy foul thirty yards out saw a grass cutter plough towards de Goey, who spilled it for Acuna to mop up the mess. 1-1.
After the game, Ranieri said that he had a choice between Bosnich and de Goey and went for the Dutchman. That’s all right then. No explanation needed. He continued by saying that the team will need two months to gel. On today’s abject performance by Le Saux, a tame Zola, a fitful Hasselbaink and a non-tackling Gronkjaer, it might take a bit longer than that. Great side. Poor team. That says it all. It is now down to Claudio – he cannot complain given the talent available to him.