Thursday, March 23, 2006

Over and out

Chelsea 1 – 0 Newcastle

And so the FA Cup dream is dead, for this season at least. But for Alan Shearer, it’s all over. When he retires in May, he’ll have just one medal to his name. A sorry state of affairs for one of the finest players to grace the modern game.

Last night’s defeat at Stamford Bridge wasn’t exactly unexpected, though the manner of it perhaps was. Having been trounced 3-0, 5-0, 4-0 and 3-0 in our previous four visits, and going into the game on the back of being outplayed and outclassed by Man Utd and Liverpool, we could have been forgiven for fearing the worst. In other words, a repeat of the mauling the Scousers had dished out to a comically awful Birmingham side in Tuesday night’s tie.

But, as it turned out, the margin of defeat was remarkably narrow, and it’s hard to assess why. Was it our resilience and determination to hang in there? Or was it down to the Chelsea performance – either simply out-of-sorts or arrogantly complacent? Probably a combination of all three.

For the first time in his reign as caretaker Roeder made significant alterations to personnel and formation. Two were enforced, N’Zogbia injured and Boumsong suspended after Sunday’s aberration, while Emre was a tad unfortunate to find himself dropped to the bench. In came Bowyer in central midfield, Dyer playing deep off Shearer with Ameobi switching to the left, and Carr at right back, meaning Ramage took up a central defensive position for the first time in his first team career.

At first it looked like a step too far for the youngster. He was all at sea for the goal, which came after just four minutes. From Damien Duff’s corner, John Terry escaped Ramage’s attentions to fire in a low shot. Solano instinctively stuck out a boot on the line but only succeeded in diverting a ball Given might well have saved through the ‘keeper’s legs. Not Solano or Given’s fault, though – the damage had been done already. If you really wanted to be critical, you could apportion some blame for the end of Shearer’s trophy hopes to the man himself – had he reacted quicker and not frozen in his customary defensive position on the near edge of the six yard box, he might have prevented Terry from getting his shot in.

Thankfully the rout that that early goal seemed to forecast never materialised. Chelsea fashioned one or two chances in an oddly subdued first period, Ricardo Carvalho going closest from a dangerous Frank Lampard free kick, while Ramage and Elliott were conspiring to make Didier Drogba look like a good player. At the other end, though, Solano was unlucky to see a free kick curl just wide of Carlo Cudicini’s left hand post after Asier Del Horno’s rash challenge on Bowyer, while Bowyer himself hit a decent left foot shot that Cudicini would have parried into Shearer’s path were it not for Terry’s intervention. Other than that, our skipper didn’t have a sniff. Looking lumbering and leggy, he just hasn’t got it in him to play as a lone striker any more.

After the predictable rocket from Mourinho at half time, Chelsea came out full of murderous intent. Three great chances were spurned within the first five minutes of the second half as we were totally overrun. But somehow we survived that pressure and the loss of Babayaro, who’d been one of our best performers against his old club. His departure meant a debut – at last! – for permainjured Aussie Craig Moore, whose appearance was greeted with boos from the Toon fans, and Elliott moving out to left back.

Despite Carr and Parker enduring poor games, we worked our way back into the game, not least by defending resolutely. Dyer in particular was lively and played the full 90 minutes – a real bonus. It might seem strange to say it, but the game was there for the taking had we had more belief and cutting edge. Chelsea were listless, allowing us to have the ball and pressurise them in the later stages – though there remained the possibility that if the equaliser had come, they would merely have shifted through the gears and brushed us aside. Sadly, neither scenario took place, Cudicini’s palms allowed to go cold by our shot-shy attack.

There was time for one last kick in the teeth, though, with referee Steve Bennett awarding Elliott a second yellow for a “block” on substitute Shaun Wright-Phillips. Unlike Boumsong’s dismissal, it was utterly unjustified – contact was minimal if not non-existent. Wright-Phillips’s fall to the turf was not unprecedented either, Del Horno getting Parker wrongly booked and Joe Cole and Hernan Crespo also guilty of amateur dramatics. Perhaps, Jose, you should look closer to home before lambasting the players of opposing teams for “simulation”. I’m sure the proverb “People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones” translates into Portuguese…

The lifelessness of the Stamford Bridge crowd and the relatively unenthusiastic celebrations of the Chelsea players on the final whistle was all the more galling – they had expected to win, and, to them, it’s just another semi-final. The FA Cup would be just another trophy, nothing more than a consolation prize having missed out on the European Cup. For us – and for Shearer – it would have meant more than that. A little more conviction, a little more quality, a little more determination, and we could have done it. Ifs, buts and maybes are all we have to cling to now.

A Chelsea perspective: Chelsea Blog (where they were sufficiently concerned about their own side's lack of form to predict correctly the 1-0 scoreline)

Other reports: BBC, Guardian


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