Thursday, November 1, 2012
Goals and ghouls galore at Chelsea
John Brewin, Stamford Bridge
"We've seen this before" sang the Chelsea fans. They had something else in mind, and at this time, all looked to be going against them, but it was the truth of this game too. Until Sunday, Chelsea were used to getting a result against Manchester United at Stamford Bridge.
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A 3-3 full-time scoreline was familiar, from January this year, though 3-2 to United, Sunday's result, looked like being repeated until the very last throes of injury time. A final 5-4 on the board even had the look of 1950s football, though it was still no 5-7, as happened the previous night between Reading and Arsenal.
The League Cup, less a hostage to pressure than the Premier League, has gained a happy habit of producing exciting contests, and that pattern was followed. Two mistakes by a rookie defender eventually handed Chelsea victory, and prevented them suffering three defeats in a row. A balance has been partially redressed, even if the fall-out from the weekend's Premier League contest continues to gather pace. For Chelsea, the next round of the League Cup awaits, while United's disappointment will be soothed by some decent performances from their younger players, and the greater importance of Sunday's Premier League win. Their young guns almost pulled off the job, and ran a far more experienced team very close indeed.
Chelsea did not even have to blame the referee, even though fans targeted Lee Mason during the first half, and he was the subject of the aforementioned ditty. Mason pointed to the spot twice in their favour and once for United, and all three were correct decisions. This referee will not be joining Mark Clattenburg in Bridge infamy. It was a match played in good spirit; competitive yet restrained from ever boiling over. Four days on, Roberto Di Matteo and Sir Alex Ferguson were not to be found verbally jousting on the sidelines.
Just like Sunday, poor defending was a leading plotline. Up in the stands, Roman Abramovich and Andriy Shevchenko were to be found lamenting the errors that led to United's first two goals, first by Oriol Romeu, and then by David Luiz. United themselves were pegged back three times by mistakes made by a callow backline, before Scott Wootton, looking tired and over-exposed, committed his fatal errors either side of full-time to hand Chelsea the lead for the first time.
Three of their starting defenders - Wootton, Michael Keane and Alexander Buttner - had under 10 first-team appearances between them. Rafael, at 22, was the veteran until Darren Fletcher was later converted into a makeshift full-back and the Brazilian moved out to the left, where he excelled too. Errors by Alex Buttner, subbed at half-time, and a late bundle on Ramires by Scott Wootton stopped a youthful United taking the spoils for a second time in four days. Of the trio, Keane looked most assured but the likes of Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra and Jonny Evans will not be feeling the hot breath of youthful promise down their necks just yet.
Luiz and Gary Cahill had no such excuse. They may have scored Chelsea's two goals but both were equalisers of Chelsea defensive errors; Luiz was especially culpable in his day job. Ferguson looks to be correct when he said last week that the current Chelsea team was not as strong in the Jose Mourinho era. The flowing football that Abramovich desires, and has received for much of this season, comes at a price.
"We are trying to change a little bit the way we play," said Di Matteo. "And at times we are going to make mistakes."
The new Chelsea have a soft centre where it was previously hard as nails. Trick or treat? This was nearly a horror night, and not quite as Chelsea had intended.
With fans dressed as zombies, ghosts and one fan surely in possession of an offensive weapon when carrying a scythe as part of his Grim Reaper costume, the hope was that the nightmares would be confined to Halloween japes. The unfurling of a provocative 'Clattenburg: Referee, Leader, Legend' banner, in answer to the Shed End's celebration of John Terry revealed that United fans were not here to kiss and make up. A singing of 'Where's Your Racist Centre-Half' compounded an atmosphere of needle that would eventually ebb as the evening went on and a high quality of the contest diverted attention from latent firestorms.
Chelsea are still in the process of making sense of their Sunday. One of their pair of complaints against Clattenburg has fallen by the wayside. The other, for a racial remark by the official to John Obi Mikel is being stood by, as legal eagles attack the affair. With credibility at stake, Chelsea are facing down their own accusations, those of being a rogue club, less than a fortnight after Bruce Buck and Rob Gourlay took to the radio airwaves to try and put a cork in the Terry saga. Having released a pre-match statement, the club are in lockdown, and will no longer answer questions on the subject of Clattenburg.
Terry himself continues to sit out his own ban for racist language, but the evidence from Sunday did not fully equate to contrition. A carefully worded programme note on Sunday was accompanied by some paparazzi pictures of him out on the razz, deep in the small hours, while reports place him at the heart of the angry delegation headed for the referee's room. It was suggestive that his ability to do what he wants at Chelsea remains, though a lower profile in the rematch was kept, with Ashley Cole by his side in the stands.
Though Chelsea played their own youngsters in Cesar Azpilicueta and Lucas Piazon, with mixed success, Mikel and Mata, two experienced men in the eye of Sunday's storm, took their places, though the Nigerian did not last beyond half-time having picked up another booking. Mata, perhaps the player of the English season so far, remained influential, his passes eventually picking United apart. Daniel Sturridge staged his own audition for the striking role that Fernando Torres does not seem to fancy with a well-taken and eventually decisive fourth.
A victory for attacking football - if not defending - and something of vindication for Chelsea had gone a little way to stilling choppy waters. However, the draw for the quarter-finals, a pairing with Leeds United, managed by Neil Warnock, on record for his heavy criticism of their handling of the Clattenburg crisis, drew ironic cheers in the bowels of the stadium. Controversy will not be going away just yet.
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