Pond-life in SW6…..

Following on from the previous piece, it would seem appropriate to stop and take track of 2 wildly contrasting  Stamford Bridge encounters between Chelsea and Manchester United that have taken place over the last few days. 

Whilst it would be wrong to read too much into 210 minutes of 20-odd blokes chasing an inflated pig’s bladder round a grassy rectangle, these two matches have served to crystallise a few issues – some specific to football and, indeed to the contrasting philosophies of the two clubs, whilst some have wider implications outside the narrow confines of the national pastime.

 Wednesday’s  thrill-a- minute League Cup encounter went to extra time before Chelsea finally got the upper hand and won  5-4.  That followed on from Sunday’s more controversial Premiership encounter that saw Chelsea reduced to 9 players and United winning 3-2.

From a United perspective, the one to win was the Premiership game as Chelsea were starting to pull away at the top of the League.  Having said that, there will  be considerable irritation among United players & staff that we didn’t win the League Cup match as well.  We were probably within about 60 seconds of  a 3-2  victory in ‘normal’ time, when our erratic Portuguese winger,  Nani, decided – not for the first time in the game –  to try something clever when he should have just laid the ball off to a colleague.  Chelsea duly dispossessed him and briskly moved the ball to the other end of the pitch, where Scott Wootton’s clumsy challenge on Ramires produced Chelsea’s second penalty of the game.  Eden Hazard fired it home without undue fuss and we were off into extra time.

However,  I’m getting ahead of myself here….

Going into Sunday’s league game, the context was that Chelsea, newly-minted European champions, had – unlike United – invested heavily during the off-season in a couple of A-list creative  midfielders in the young Brazilian starlet, Oscar, and high-priced Belgian import, Eden Hazard, who joined from Lille.  Hazard was apparently coveted by United as well but ultimately chose to relocate to London rather than venture north in to dark, satanic mill territory.  Oh well, that’s his loss and any disappointment that United fans might have felt about his decision to opt for the nouveaux riches at the Bridge was at least partially offset by Hazard’s bizarre use of ‘social media’ to tease everyone about his destination for a couple of weeks before his transfer went through.  Talented? Undoubtedly.  Dickhead?  In all probability, yes. 

Eden Hazard: “Excusez-moi, mais qu’est-ce que c’est, le ‘Vimto’?”

Chelsea’s winning of the European Cup has caused some pained expressions elsewhere in London – particularly at the Emirates, where Arsenal’s self-proclaimed school of Wenger-driven cultured football has proved unable to deliver anything in the way of silverware for the past 7 years (and counting: see http://www.sincearsenallastwonatrophy.co.uk/.  )

Arsenal fans clearly saw their team as a natural fit for London’s first Champions League winners but have now found themselves gazumped by the spawn of Abramovich’s vulgar spending spree along the King’s Road.  Arsenal may have the history but since the Vieira/Henry era imploded, a succession of talismanic players have either failed to deliver for a  variety of reasons(Arshavin, Wilshere) or have jumped ship (Fabregas).  The latest Gooner icon to abandon north London’s culture club was Robin van Persie, who – to my considerable surprise – has ended up at United.

United’s strategy in recent years – according to their PR schtick – has been to invest only in young players who might have some resale value once they move on.  When Sir Alex Ferguson completed the purchase of 28-year old Dimitar Berbatov back in 2008, he said that Berbatov would be the last such player that United would buy and that they would subsequently concentrate on bringing in or bringing through young players.  Hence my surprise when van Persie,  injury-prone and cusping on his 29th birthday was brought in for big bucks on a 4-year contract in August.

Still can’t quite get used to RvP in United red!

Whatever reservations any of us might have had about RvP’s arrival, he has done his level best to assuage  anyone’s fears by beginning his United career like an express train.  To date, he has scored nine goals in League and European competition and has definitely added considerable menace to our forward threat.  Importantly, he also seems to have established a good rapport with Wayne Rooney, so if we can keep him fit, the portents are promising.

Van Persie also has a terrific goal-scoring record at Stamford Bridge, scoring a hat-trick there for the Gooners in a 5-3 trouncing last year, so he will have had few apprehensions about the game.  However, much of the pre-match chat at the weekend centred around the absence of  CaptainLeaderLegendScumbag John Terry, so beloved of this blog, who had finally deigned to concede that appealing a four match ban for racist remarks he made to Anton Ferdinand of QPR was not worth the extra negative publicity it would bring to him and his club.  He even managed an apology, which whilst extremely general in scope – never specifying Anton Ferdinand as the victim of his remarks –  was more fulsome than anything Luis Suarez managed.  So, Terry banned for both games against United and everyone hoping that with his destiny sorted  for now, football might take over from racism. 

For a while, this seemed a likely outcome on Sunday afternoon as United, generally dozy and dilatory in the opening  minutes of most games this year, came out the traps like greased whippets and opened the scoring after just 3 minutes thanks to a van Persie shot that smashed against the post, rebounded to strike David Lee Roth lookalike David Luiz and from there back into the net.  Just 9 minutes later and it was 2-0 thanks to an even better goal from van Persie. This one began with Rio Ferdinand; roundly booed all afternoon for having the temerity to be Anton’s brother, who scooped a great ball out to Rafael on the right.  The little Brazilian fed it further on for Tony Valencia to chase and once he reached it, he drove a low ball across the Chelsea area and into the path of van Persie, who swept home imperiously from about 8 yards out.

Robin van Persie & Tony Valencia celebrate United’s second goal

On this occasion,  it was Chelsea, not United,  who hadn’t really started playing, but towards half-time, they began to  get back into the game, with Jonny Evans lucky not to join Luiz on the own goal sheet as he deflected a cross against De Gea’s near post. The pressure built and built and just before half-time, the otherwise impressive Wayne Rooney, dispossessed by Hazard about 20 yards out, snapped back at the Belgian with a brainless foul which set up the impressive Juan Mata to curl home a free kick and reduce the arrears.  It felt like United had blown their great start and, sure enough, after the break, Chelsea continued to pressure us, with De Gea making some typically unorthodox stops to keep them out.

In the end, with United on the back foot and the ball pinging backwards & forwards across the goalmouth, it was the diminutive Ramires who got up above the largely disappointing Tom Cleverley to head home an equaliser. With over half an hour left to play, I braced myself for the Chelsea onslaught, so what happened next was more than a little surprising.  Picking up the ball near the halfway line, van Persie played a peach of a through ball into the path of the onrushing Ashley Young, who, as he shaped to shoot from the edge of the area was summarily upended by the uncompromising Branislav Ivanovic.  Clear red card for Ivanovic and a free-kick from a promising position which United duly wasted.  Down to 10 but largely unbowed, Chelsea continued to drive forward and the next significant action saw John Obi Mikel bursting forward into the United half before feeding the ball to Fernando Torres. Confronted by Jonny Evans, Torres pushed the ball past him as Evans went in for the tackle.  If there was contact from Evans, it was minimal and nothing like enough to impede Torres’ forward run.  However, with Rio Ferdinand coming across to cover, Torres could clearly see his options diminishing and – in my opinion – threw himself to the floor.

Referee Mark Clattenburg clearly agreed, rushing past an apprehensive Evans to brandish a yellow card at the kneeling Torres.  This was the Spaniard’s second card, having already been booked for a horrible chest-high ‘tackle’ on Cleverley in the first half.  So, out came the red card and Chelsea were down to nine men.  The atmosphere in the ground, already fairly volatile,  now became toxic as Chelsea fans,  already aggrieved by the John Terry Scandal, now became even more convinced that the world,  and in particular the FA & Mark Clattenburg, were against them.   Every decision in United’s favour was greeted with howls of dismay and anger by the Matthew Harding Stand, but Fergie has been down this road before and after a series of untidy fouls by Wayne Rooney, he was withdrawn in favour of Ryan Giggs – a wise move given that referees often try to ‘even things up’ by issuing a red card to the opposition, even when it isn’t really deserved. 

Javier Hernandez, fresh from scoring twice against Braga during the week, had also been introduced in place of the anodyne Cleverley.  The Mexican, like van Persie, has a terrific scoring record against Chelsea and his movement was soon creating problems for Luiz and Cahill.  Almost inevitably, it was he who scored what proved to be the winning goal on 75 minutes, but this, too, was mired in controversy.  Van Persie received the ball near the penalty spot and whipped in a shot that Cech partly blocked.  The ball spun slowly towards the goal line and a whole posse of players, including Hernandez, converged on it, but it was Cech who fly-hacked it away from the foot of the post.  The ball flew straight to the feet of Fabio, who advanced into the area and smashed in a wildly inaccurate right-footed shot which flew across the face of the goal rather than into it.  Hernandez had by this point disentangled himself from the Chelsea net and he emerged in time to deflect Fabio’s cross-shot into the Chelsea net.

Javier Hernandez wheels away after scoring United’s winner

What was obvious from replays was that Hernandez was either offside or had come back from an offside position before diverting the ball into the net.  He was also unwise enough to celebrate his goal in front of the Matthew Harding Stand, prompting a cascade of debris from the literati of that parish, one piece of which felled a CFC steward, which qualifies as ‘friendly fire’ I suppose.  Chelsea’s players protested the referee’s decision to allow the goal and it was at this point that he seems to have had some verbal exchanges with Juan Mata and John Obi Mikel which were to have further repercussions.  The remaining 15 minutes or so of the game were played out in a rancorous atmosphere where every decision that went against Chelsea was greeted with abuse and hostility.  Tony Valencia was booked for ‘simulation’ – a quite ludicrous decision and an obvious attempt by Clattenburg to redress the balance – and then missed a gilt-edged chance to make the result doubly secure, miscuing horribly when it looked easier to score.

And that appeared to be that; the final whistle went, the Chelsea fans booed, the United fans celebrated and the gap at the top was closed to a point.  However, in the aftermath, stories began to emerge about some of the verbal exchanges between Clattenburg and certain Chelsea players – specifically Mikel and Mata.  Said exchanges were allegedly racist in tone and though Mata’s complaint has now been quietly dropped,   Chelsea are pursuing Mikel’s accusation that Clattenburg called him a ‘monkey’.  Suddenly, the whole ‘racism in football’ issue, which the FA and numerous other bastions of the sport and the media no doubt hoped was about to recede into the  background, was back on the front page again.

Clattenburg and Mikel in discussions 

Various investigations are now under way, but there are suggestions that a deputation of Chelsea players and staff paid a visit to the referee’s dressing room 15 minutes after the game ended, in clear contravention of all the relevant rules.  It would seem that Chelsea are not only developing an almost Scouser-esque taste for self-pity and victimisation, but are also becoming a lightning rod for controversy.  Clattenburg has denied any wrongdoing and the assistants who could hear his remarks in their headsets have been quick to defend him.  Unless Mikel and Chelsea have some killer evidence, they seem likely to emerge from this self-inflicted scenario with their already tarnished reputation further diminished.  It’s good to see them wearing their European Champions crown with such dignity.

Anyway, whatever the outcome of the Clattenburg /Mikel affair, what was beyond doubt was that Chelsea and United had a repeat engagement just 3 days later in the League Cup.  United had a far larger ticket allocation for this cup-tie and a large and noisy entourage effectively took over the whole of The Shed end.  Mancunian wags had been busy producing posters, too, with this one parodying Chelsea’s John Terry love-in…..

This one, meanwhile, though a good deal less sophisticated, did a good job in celebrating Chelsea’s sudden conversion to the anti-racist lobby…

For this League Cup tie, Fergie fielded a team that had far more of a makeshift feel to it, with a mixture of fringe players and youngsters lining up against a  Chelsea team that was more experienced and featured a bench filled with  expensive talent. 

Chelsea had the better of the early stages with Sturridge tripping over the ball when in on goal, but it was United who took the lead thanks to some determined pressing high up the pitch .  Cech played a short goal kick out to Romeu, who dwelt on it, allowing Andes Ron to get a foot in and toe-end the ball away to Giggs. who had time to compose himself before curling a precise shot just inside Cech’s right-hand post.  An impressive finish to finish off some equally impressive work from Andes Ron, who had one of his best games for United.

Chelsea, however, were soon level, thanks to the pace and persistence of Victor Moses who was already giving Alex Büttner a tough time.  Another driving run and an injudicious lunge by Büttner  – a clear penalty, which  Luiz just squeezed past Lindegaard’s dive.

 Chelsea’s David Luiz

Despite this setback, United kept pushing forward in what was proving to be a breezily open encounter.  United retook the lead just ahead of half-time thanks to another great bit of work from Andes Ron, who sent Hernandez through with a precise pass after Poodle Boy Luiz had given the ball away in midfield.  A great first touch from the Mexican and a low shot made it 2-1 at the interval.

Andes Ron – impressive performance  from a guy I’d written off.

Into the second half and Fergie replaced the struggling Büttner with Nick Powell and the ex-Crewe midfielder soon brought Cech into action with a low drive that forced the Chelsea keeper into a sprawling save.

United’s makeshift centre-back pairing of Scott Wootton (21) and Michael Keane (19) had done pretty well up until this point, but the whole defence were looking shaky at set pieces, so Chelsea’s equaliser just on the hour mark came as no real surprise – Cahill arriving at pace to bullet a  free header  past Lindegaard.

Di Matteo now began to wheel out the big guns, with Hazard replacing the ineffectual Piazon.  Again, though, it was United who got their noses in front thanks to the goal of the night scored by the enigma-wrapped-in-a-conundrum that is Luis Nani.  A spectacularly slick interchange with that man Andes Ron saw Nani running free about 8 yards out on the angle and his dinked finish over the advancing Cech was just perfect. 

More big guns from Chelsea as Oscar replaced Romeu and with Andes Ron’s puzzling lack of fitness finally beginning to tell and the less experienced Ryan Tunnicliffe being introduced , it had really become a question of whether a substantially ‘greener’ United line-up could hold out.  Until Nani’s moment of unneccessary showboating United were close, but with Hazard drilling home the penalty with the last kick of the 90 minutes, we were into extra time and the momentum was definitely with Chelsea.

Poor Scott Wootton had already given away that penalty and he was at fault again early in the first period of extra time, trying to head a ball he should have left alone and simply playing in Daniel Sturridge for a routine finish.  With United looking stretched, Hazard broke away and dummied several United defenders before playing in Ramires for a simple finish.  At 5-3, that looked to be it, but then Hernandez was clattered by Spanish full-back Azpilicueta and Giggs slotted home another penalty to make it 5-4 in injury time at the end of extra time.

That was to be it, however; no more miracles and though United will have been disappointed to  lose having pushed Chelsea so close, they will know that Di Matteo had to wheel out most of his available ‘big guns’ to earn a hard-fought victory.  Youngsters like Michael Keane and Ryan Tunnicliffe will have learned a great deal from such a defeat and it will probably help them mature and progress.   Keane, in particular, played brilliantly for much of the game and once his brother, Will, is fit again, I think we can look forward to another set of brothers as first-team regulars, as with the Nevilles and the Greenhoffs in earlier years.

Chelsea can look forward to a period of controversy as the Clattenburg Fiasco is resolved, but their cause hasn’t been helped by the long lenses of the tabloids, who captured a particularly noxious piece of pond-life named Gavin Kirkham in the Matthew Harding Stand making monkey-like gestures towards United’s Danny Welbeck, albeit at some distance.

Gavin Kirkham; another of Chelsea’s diamond geezer supporters

Here’s how young Gavin likes to spend his time when he’s not making racist  gestures at black footballers…..

N.B. ‘Playboy’ pillowcases – Gavin is clearly a ‘renaissance man’!

Obviously with fans like Gavin packing out the Matthew Harding Stand, the case against Mark Clattenburg is as good as proven.  It must offend the season ticket holders at such a hotbed of racial egalitarianism that a referee can abuse black footballers in the way Clattenburg has done.  Shocking……

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