Another case of unjust desserts. For the second time in the space of four days, we played sufficiently well to expect to be tucking into a delicious slice of Victory Cheesecake at the final whistle, but instead found ourselves with Defeat Pie smeared all over our faces.
For once – and make a note, you’re unlikely to read this very often here – you have to feel for the players. Despite being full of effort and worrying one of the best sides in England on numerous occasions, they went unrewarded for their travails.
Once again Souness shuffled the pack, though given recent performances it’s debatable whether Elliott, Hughes and Bowyer were rested or just outright dropped. Bramble and Johnsen reprised their central defensive partnership from the previous round against Norwich, and Robert came into midfield.
For Chelsea, Jose Mourinho found places for Glen Johnson, William Gallas, Scott Parker and Carlo Cudicini, and moved right back Paulo Ferreira into a holding position in midfield. A weakened team you might say, but any side boasting a front three of Kezman, Duff and Cole is not to be taken lightly.
Once O’Brien, moved to right back, had got a terrible mistake out of his system – his sloppy backpass after two minutes was seized upon by Kezman who rounded Given but was unable to finish from a tight angle – the first half belonged to us.
Robert’s wicked delivery from set pieces proved our most effective tactic in unsettling a normally composed defence, one fantastic inswinging corner palmed over from just under the bar by a flustered Cudicini who’d strayed too far off his line. The best chance of the half fell to Bernard who, after a neat exchange of passes with Robert, moved into the penalty area with menace and saw his low shot brilliantly tipped round the post. When he’s on his game, as he was last night, the Frenchman gives us another excellent attacking option, a fact underlined by the lack of threat down the right, due in part to O’Brien’s understandable reluctance to venture into unfamiliar territory.
The half time whistle came and I – foolishly, as ever – felt very satisfied with the performance and only ever so slightly worried that we hadn’t capped it with a goal. Judging by Souness’s muted reaction to the Bernard chance, he was rather more concerned…
The second half was a similar story. We dominated in terms of possession and chances, Robert in particular unlucky to see a rocket of a free-kick saved. We didn’t test Cudicini quite often enough, though, given our superiority, and the threat of having our chips pissed on was always there – most obviously when Tiago missed a sitter after some careless defending.
Most of us could have been forgiven for a sharp intake of breath at the news that Bramble was in the line-up, but he had a fine game, his concentration for once impeccable throughout. Not only was his tackling and heading sound, his long-ball distribution helped to start several promising forays into the Chelsea half. We still desperately need someone to marshal the back line as a unit – I’m sure I wasn’t the only Newcastle fan casting envious eyes at John Terry – but Bramble at least showed there is hope for his career on Tyneside.
It was helpful, of course, that Chelsea’s forwards had a collective off day. Kezman’s tireless running was in vain, Duff was utterly anonymous and Cole’s contribution to the Blues’ cause was to commit a succession of petty and cynical fouls. Not that our attack was much sharper, though – Shearer, Kluivert and Bellamy all worked hard enough but question marks remain over the effectiveness of playing all three at once. Perhaps Souness needs to stop pandering to their egos and incur the wrath of one of them for the good of the team.
After a goalless 90 minutes, the classic sucker punch duly arrived in extra time. Forgetting his record against us, I had actually welcomed the arrival of Eidur Gudjonssen onto the pitch, primarily because it involved the removal of the excellent Parker, the one major obstacle preventing us from getting at the Chelsea defence. Of course, no sooner had I opened my stupid mouth than the striker’s shot had nestled into the bottom corner. Cue the shoulder slump of resignation. The second goal hardly mattered, except to twist the knife and ensure we would be spared the indignity of another penalty shoot-out failure. It came from the boot of fellow substitute and man-of-the-moment Arjen Robben, who ghosted in to finish expertly for the third match in a row.
So that was that. Chelsea fans will consider it professional. I prefer fortuitous, but then I guess they can’t be relying purely on luck if they’re doing this week in week out.
We’re left having to wave goodbye to an eminently winnable trophy for another season, and to lick our wounds before the visit of Man Utd on Sunday. Let’s just hope we get our fair share of fortune against those red bastards, because we really could do with it.
(It gives me absolutely no pleasure to report that Chelseablog
were right in their pre-match prediction. Or that their man Blingo Starr calls it “professional”