Thirty-seven minutes into last night’s crucial, potentially pendulum-swinging clash at Stamford Bridge, a man selflessly put down his iPad, cleared a space in his schedule and heroically plonked himself two seats to my left, where his colleague heralded his arrival by setting about summarising the previous half-hour or so’s action.
“It’s been a beautiful game, we’re just not closing”, remarked the business associate, in that way only a person so utterly obsessed with his work that he allows it to warp his match day vernacular can.
Unbecoming, sure, but all standard West Stand Lower fare, I’m sure anyone who has sat there long enough to hear a whistle will agree. Meanwhile, this sense of predictability must have seeped onto the pitch, too, as even the man who at one point was heard to shout “Let football win, come on!” could recognise the stand-out performer in a team which has come close to reaching a nirvana of inevitability in terms of results since last summer.
Before you ask, it wasn’t Willian, as electric as the Brazilian was and has been at times in recent weeks. It wasn’t the man who has clearly threatened his place since arriving last month, Juan Cuadrado, either, although he also showed several signs of promise during an impressive full home debut. And it wasn’t Loic Remy who, along with Didier Drogba, has steered us through these Diego Costa-free times of late, showcasing admirable endeavour, uplifting speed of thought and solid link-up play without at any point remotely suggesting his role in this squad would ever be more than that of understudy.
No, it was that man Eden Hazard. Again. The Belgian was the best player on the pitch for the nth time this term, his tricks, turns and injections of pace, as well as his intelligent game management drawing delight, deliberation and uproar in equal measure as fans gasped in awe before demanding officials take action against any presumed intruder into their house of fun, their Garden of Eden.
Chances came thick and fast in that breath-taking opening 30 minutes about which my neighbour couldn’t help but coo, with no less than six of the 10 starting outfielders going close, nearest of which being when Everton’s Tim Howard clawed away Remy’s early header.
Matic had blasted high, Willian had had two curled efforts turned away and both new boy Cuadrado and Remy had dragged wide from similar positions, not to mention Branislav Ivanovic’s exhausted effort that travelled into the Shed’s top tier from the edge of the six yard box, by the time Petr Cech was called into his night’s most testing piece of action.
SW6 Alumnus Romelu Lukaku had been superbly marshalled for the most part by the athletic, engaged and increasingly-resilient Kurt Zouma but the ex-Blue had offered the visitors’ only effort of note in the first period when drawing a low save from the left foot of Cech. And fate called for a repeat in the 70th minute as the ball was drilled across the face and turned goalwards instinctively by an expectant Lukaku, only for Cech to produce one of the saves of the season thanks to positioning borne of all those years of experience that helped him regain his starting spot for the evening ahead of the ‘rotated’ Thibaut Courtois.
One sensed this may have been a pivotal point in the game and so it proved. Moments later, Drogba and the returning Cesc Fabregas were introduced in place of Remy and the seemingly unpronounceable Cuadrado (the closest resemblance to the 3-syllable name I heard began with a ‘C’ but somehow ended up rhyming with that of Tottenham striker Roberto Soldado), the screw was slowly turned and the scriptwriters were cajoled into conjuring up a disallowed goal, a sending-off, ensuing handbags and a last-minute winner to satisfy their hosts.
When asked to describe his emotions in either a positive or negative light after the game, Jose Mourinho mused that if he wanted an easy job he would not have worked in this country, alluding to the fickleness of fate within this wonderful game of ours. However, what is becoming increasingly clear is that this team, led by this talisman, even in the absence of luminaries such as Costa and Fabregas, will take some stopping from chuntering on to its intended destination come May.
And where was the gentleman so keen to close when Willian struck his winner, I hear you ask? Oh, he was long-gone by then. He left on the 85-minute mark, of course, no doubt in order to secure much-needed funding for some soulless enterprise that makes few rich on paper, many poor of mind and leaves him down a whole lot more than he might have been had he doubled-down on his evening’s investment.
Thank God for late goals.