They pull a knife, you pull a gun. They send off Lampard, you pull a Ballack. That’s the Premier League way.
If there is an award for most ham-fisted segue into the concept of “Untouchable”, I’d like to claim my prize. But the point is an extremely important one. Just who is irreplaceable at Chelsea right now? Because it’s sure as eggs is ova not the list José offered us back in December of 2006. If anyone needs a refresher course, here they are: Makelele, Essien, Lampard, Ballack, Terry, Carvalho, Drogba, Cech and Ashley Cole.
The team that mauled West Ham in the wake of the Carling Cup defeat still contains 7 out of those 9, in case you’re interested (and if you’re not, you’ve probably stopped reading now). Now, if I’d had to pick 2 of those 9 to be left out at the beginning of the season, I’d probably suggest that the great Claude Makelele could be doing with a little more time to stick plasters on his corns and Michael Ballack or Frank Lampard would have to play scissors/paper/stone on a weekly basis for that attacking midfield position. I’d have been wronger than a photo of your father posing provocatively in your mother’s pants.
It seemed to me that the only 2 players last season who never, at any stage, really lost their form were Essien and Drogba. Whether you can put this down to simple physique – both guys are, after all, pretty close to Olympian – or whether it’s simply desire and a serendipitous freedom from injury that the rest of the squad, for whatever reason, lacked… well, whatever your opinion, I defy you to find 2 Chelsea fans out of 10 that disagree with me. Following the Wembley fiasco, it was essential that the squad offered an emphatic response. Consider yourselves emphasised, Irons. And yet neither bastion of the team started the game, with Essien making a 20-minute cameo after Ashley Cole had stretched the team’s lead to 4 goals. By the way, chin up Ash. She’ll get over it son. And if she doesn’t, hey… you’re still a millionaire footballer.
That Drogba has come back from Ghana jaded and out of form is not really up for debate. That he should have genuine competition for the lone striker berth looks to be something of a problem for him. After all, if he’s facing off against Pizarro and Shevchenko, sheer necessity is going to drag him out of the slough of despond sooner or later. But Anelka revels in the position, setting up 2 goals on Saturday and having a perfectly decent one wrongly disallowed: a performance that reminded me of Chelsea’s 4-0 mauling of Liverpool at Anfield a couple of years ago. Much like Anelka’s virtuoso performance on Saturday, Drogba failed to score but had a decisive hand in every attack as Duff, Lampard, Cole and even Geremi handed Liverpool’s backsides to them on a silver platter. Anelka was played wide at Wembley and looked lost. On Saturday, he often pushed out wide but did so with absolute clarity of purpose. When he took a centreback with him, he left acres of space for Ballack and Lampard to stroll into. When he didn’t, he was allowed room to set Joe Cole up for a marvellous half-volley.
All this begs the question… what of Drogba? Is the much-discussed move to Milan on the cards? Is his heart already elsewhere? It’s no secret that Milan, with the ageing Inzaghi and hapless Gilardino, require a serious target man to offset the frightening talent of Pato. Or am I reading too much into it… could it be a perfectly natural reaction to what turned out to be another disappointing cup showing from the Elephants? If so, we need the big man back and in the mood sharpish. The season’s business end is winking coyly at us all. United are on fire. Arsenal are falling apart. But both have to visit the Bridge, and Chelsea have a game in hand. There’s a lot of footie still to play.
Which brings us back to yet another Untouchable: Claude Makelele.
At the beginning of this season, the man looked to be hitting that era of glorious senescence – and I mean that in the most positive way that the word permits – that only true greats can achieve. No, he’s no spring chicken; in fact, he wasn’t when he arrived at the Bridge in 2003. But his bite and controlled aggression, topped off with that sunny grin – are fully intact. If you don’t believe me, ask Julian Faubert, who can testify that there’s an occasional dark side to the smiling Frenchman’s game. But, that tackle aside, he remains one of the quintessential you-can’t-quite-book-me-for-that players: a man who marshals the buffer in front of defence like few others in the game. And he’s had a lot of work to do this season, what with his natural successors – Mikel and Essien – being otherwise engaged for a good 8 weeks. His presence has been a large factor in Chelsea’s ability to stay in touch at the top during the African Cup of Nations. Whether he can continue to produce at that level as the season nears a climax… well, we’ll see. But should Chelsea’s European run continue, it will be interesting to see who Grant favours in defensive midfield against more stalwart opposition than Olympiacos.
Finally, we come to Alex, whose blossoming as a Chelsea player continues apace. His arrival was marred by the natural conundrum of adapting to a new team, but his integration and efficiency has completely won me round. If it wasn’t for Terry’s commanding – and at times scintillating – performance against West Ham, it would be easier to wonder if his absence at Wembley hadn’t been a serious reason why we looked so confused at the back. Immaculate in the air and instinctive in terms of positioning, the two are very similar players… not least because they both lack the yard of pace that distinguishes Carvalho – despite his relative slightness of frame – as one of the world’s premier central defenders. Terry’s always needed a quicker man to play alongside. Alex doesn’t fit the bill, so with his captain’s return to fitness, he’s going to find starting places harder to come by. As a Chelsea fan, here’s hoping Grant can keep him happy. He’s a player we need to keep hold of.