To have arrived at a situation where, moments before kick off against Manchester United, rather than suffering from the crippling nerves and sense of intense anticipation that precede potentially season-defining matches, to find oneself incapable of producing one single reason to be doubtful of victory, is truly a most gratifying sensation. To then have said rationally obtained confidence vindicated by such a wonderfully straightforward triumph was, of course, even sweeter.
Though on a less conceited note, it was difficult not to sympathise with David Moyes’ side on some level yesterday; the amalgamation of prohibiting factors (not least the unavailability of Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie) had our opponents lining up as considerable underdogs, and yet it was them who played the by far the better football for the duration of the opening periods. They were the more disciplined, cohesive unit. And if we’re being honest, had early opportunities been taken, or had the added quality of absent forward players been available to acuminate their periods of offensive pressure, the result could easily have been different. And it’s when in full knowledge and appreciation of this fact, that the element of routine in yesterday’s win becomes truly profound.
For not even one second of the opening 20 minutes, in which we could hardly string two passes together but for the relentless pressure being applied, did it feel like our position as match favourites might disappear. When they approached our penalty area at speed or with numbers, where a few years ago we would’ve looked away from the TV screen and prayed in fear, we could watch calmly in the knowledge that nothing was likely materialise. I think we’re currently at a stage where, over a such a short space of time, Chelsea have surpassed Man Utd to an extent where the latter not only need time and a lot of money to catch up to the former, but time and a lot of money spent extremely well over multiple transfer windows until at least the summer of 2015. Until then I think it’s clear that Chelsea are playing a totally different game from our historic main rival over the past decade. Which it has to be said, is a rather delicious position to be in.
And it’s a position sweetened further, I think it has to be pointed out, by the persisting stories reported of Jose Mourinho being rejected by Manchester Utd for a job last summer. It amazes me how easily it’s reported as fact that the Portuguese wanted the job and ending up simply ‘settling’ for a role back at Chelsea (in a ‘marriage of convenience’), despite the only written substantiation I’ve seen of this notion, being from a particular Spanish journalist/author, whose motives I suspect of being slightly more sinister than simply to inform/share his insights. Everything which I’ve seen and read since Real Madrid and Man Utd’s CL round of 16 tie last year has given me no reason to believe Mourinho is anywhere but where he’s always wanted to be, and even if I’m wrong, and he’d rather have succeeded Alex Ferguson than return to Chelsea, then I’m still pretty much certain he’s glad things didn’t work out now, and his declaration of loyalty and long-term commitment to the Blues is 100% sincere.
Yesterday might have been Mourinho’s 100th Premier League win, achieved in record time in terms of games played (20 less than Sir Alex), but it was our Cameroonian centre forward whose records will be on the back pages tomorrow. Yesterday, Eto’o became the first Chelsea player to score a hat-trick against Man Utd since the 1954-55 season; it was also the fastest hat-trick ever scored against the Red-Devils in the Premier League era.
His first goal was a relatively fortunate. After wrong footing Phil Jones with, what would have been for the Englishman, embarrassing ease, the African’s left footed shot was deflected over David De Gea into the bottom corner by Michael Carrick. His other two goals you could argue were the result of even poorer defending still, with Rafael leaving his near post position and abandoning his man entirely in the second phase to leave Eto’o completely free for the tap in. The hat-trick was then sealed shortly after half-time when Gary Cahill, who has become such a wonderfully intelligent and dangerous offensive asset from set pieces, won the header from a corner, which De Gea then failed to hold on to and reclaim before Eto’o tapped in the match-sealing goal having spun Antonio Valencia on the goal line.
I think it’s safe to say that until now, Eto’o has been regarded has little more than a last-minute, stop gap signing/a case of the manager conservatively going for a former player which he trusts to do a decent job, rather than any sort of brilliant/potentially title winning purchase. And whilst that will remain largely the case, I’ve written before on this blog the quality and the experience of a player like Eto’o couldn’t possibly go an entire season without counting for something – I’ve also suggested as the season progresses and he becomes more and more comfortable in the Premier League, we’ll see this quality and experience begin to count for more and more as the games become increasingly important. It’s sadly predictable that Fernando Torres should become injured again straight after hitting another period of form (scoring in two consecutive away league matches), but if his absence allows Samuel Eto’o to build some goal-scoring momentum and become the lethal poacher he was in his prime and which we’ve been missing all season, it could turn out to be an invaluable ‘blessing in disguise’.
I said to my friend before the game today that it had felt like Chelsea had been building up to a performance where we would really state our case as title contenders with a convincing win after a great run of four victories with only one goal conceded. This didn’t quite happen. Instead what we saw was further evidence that this side has the maturity and the quality to win matches without playing well, and against the big name sides. Which though ultimately of course won’t be enough to finish higher than this ridiculous Manchester City side; it is perhaps a more useful trait than to be able to stick four or five past a side when playing well. We might not be as intimidating, or as powerful or as aesthetically impressive as Manuel Pellegrini’s team, but yesterday I think we made it perfectly clear, if it wasn’t already, we’re taking this title race all the way and we won’t be stopped without a fight.