Tuesday, December 07, 2004

A Bridge too far

Well, on the bright side we have improved since last season.

Thus spake the other half of B&W&RAO following our 4-0 Stamford Bridge defeat to Chelsea. Last season it was 5-0.

In the end, as in our win a fortnight ago at Crystal Palace, class told – the difference being that this time we were very much on the receiving end. However, the emphatic final score flattered our hosts and should not be allowed to detract from the fact that, for the first hour, we played very well indeed.

Admittedly the first half’s two best chances fell to Chelsea, John Terry’s header rightly chalked off for offside and bogeyman Eidur Gudjohnsen somehow contriving to shoot wide after an horrific mix-up between Bramble and Johnsen, but danger men Robben and Duff hardly had a kick. It was us who looked the most incisive in attack, worrying the Premiership’s meanest defence with some lightning breaks. Petr Cech did well to save a Robert free-kick, and then managed to keep out Bellamy when Dyer played him in with an excellent ball.

In midfield, Bowyer and stand-in skipper Jenas were superb, pressurising and tackling with vigour and determination, whilst Dyer was full of running and, refreshingly, eager to take on and beat his man. The only area with conspicuous room for improvement was the left flank, where the right-footed Hughes looked distinctly uncomfortable on the ball and Robert’s distribution was errant and wasteful.

But, just after the hour mark, Mourinho having thrown on Didier Drogba, Mateja Kezman and Wayne Bridge in a bid to break the deadlock, Lampard sneaked into the area unnoticed and, when Drogba headed the ball down to him six yards out, he made no mistake on the volley. From that point we were in desperate trouble.

Our previously rigid shape fell apart, and all of a sudden we looked utterly overrun. Dyer and Bowyer went missing, leaving JJ to try and cope with Makalele and Lampard. His efforts were manful but ultimately in vain. Part of the problem was our inability to keep hold of the ball up front – Kluivert was particularly culpable, and, with quality service at a premium, Bellamy completely disappeared from the game.

On 68 minutes Drogba ran on to a brilliant Lampard long ball, outmuscled Bramble and finished well past Given, and Chelsea added two more shortly before the final whistle. First Robben ran through to slot home with our defence in disarray and then Kezman, who’d earlier hit the post, grabbed his first Premiership goal from the spot in injury time after Given had brought down a marauding Chelsea forward. Gudjohnsen having been withdrawn at half-time, Drogba, Kezman and Robben were all staking their own claims to become bogeymen themselves – the latter scored in our league cup defeat last month, whilst the former pair both hit the back of Given’s net in last season’s UEFA Cup when playing for Marseille and PSV respectively.

Up against an admittedly tremendous outfit, the margin of defeat wasn’t totally unexpected, but was no less painful because the lads had given us hope they could hold out or even nick it. 4-0 was rough justice for a number of our players, not least youngsters JJ and Taylor, as well as Given, who didn’t have a chance with any of the goals.

The harsh reality, though, is that after sixteen games, we’re rooted firmly in mid-table, we’ve lost more games than we’ve won and our goal difference is firmly in the red. Over recent games we’ve had it impressed on us that creditable performances don’t necessarily count for anything. Goals in conjunction with clean sheets do. We remain far too fallible in defence and, even as a high-scoring side, too profligate up front. Things have to change, and fast – starting with Saturday’s must-win clash with Portsmouth, one of the sides that leapfrogged us this weekend.

A final word for the Chelsea fans, who once again dutifully exhibited all the smug superiority and brashness one expects from the nouveau riche. C’mon lads, your team is demolishing the opposition and cruising to an eight point lead at the top of the table, and all you can think to sing is “Champions League, you’re having a laugh”. Why not take pride in your own team, rather than mocking the afflicted? You’d also do well to remember that before the Russian revolution the notion of Chelsea competing in the Champions League was laughable too.


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