It only occurred to me about an hour before kick off last night that an entire 21 months of life had happened since our previous game in the knockout stages of the Champions League. (During which time, Oscar has quite incredibly managed to rack up 99 appearances for the club). I’d almost forgotten that perfectly unique sense of nervousness, the brewing of which in the pit of your stomach can mean only one thing – a very nervous 90 minutes of live sport lies somewhere in your very near future.
In a sense though, it’d be dishonest to say last night even came close, on an emotional level, to our most recent ties in this stage of the competition. From 2010 to 2012, we might not have been favourites for the trophy, but we always still seemed to affect the aura of a European ‘powerhouse’, more than capable, if not likely, to progress through any round. Since Munich however, the profile of the squad has changed massively. A high percentage of the personnel remains, but the focus of the team has switched to a younger core of players and the difference was more than noticeable on the pitch last night.
A few years ago, Galatasaray’s baffling inability to realise the 25 yards of space they were leaving between the back four and the keeper wasn’t a good idea, would’ve been ruthlessly exploited, and the tie, most likely, would’ve been ended there and then. And even though a score draw isn’t necessarily a disappointing result, on this occasion, it can only be regarded as an opportunity lost.
Throughout the first half we played pretty well. Both full backs were excellent; Frank Lampard and Ramires made full advantage of the room they were given to control the play, and though they were all guilty of making bad decisions at times, the front four looked pretty sharp. The early goal was the result of an impressive counter attacking move, with Azpilicueta overlapping well with Hazard and Torres opening his body well to finish from close range.
It’d be easy to criticise Mancini’s initial game plan/selection, given how amazingly stupid it was, but the Italian is also owed credit for making the tactical change as early as he did. As soon as the Turkish side switched to a three man midfield they looked arguably the more composed, more balanced side for the remainder of the game; certainly after scoring the equaliser they evidently were the more comfortable team. Mourinho’s decision to bring on Mikel soon after conceding was frustrating at the time, with Gala still there to be counter-attacked you felt, though probably sensible in hindsight. As a game plan, erring on the side of caution has served us well so far in 2014, and though it won’t be easy, we remain strong favourites to progress.
(One quick point to make however, we’d be even more likely to progress had the referee not done everything in his power to avoid booking that absolute shambles of a player, Felipe Melo, who must have committed half a dozen yellow card offences at least. That Petr Cech ended up in the book for daring to take longer than five seconds over a goal kick whilst Melo avoids suspension for the return leg is something of a farce – alright, mini rant over).
I’ve noticed recently, that considering how remarkably few goals we’ve conceded since the New Year, (only 6 in our last 15) that the goals we do end up shipping have been remarkably straightforward for the opposition. Aurelien Chedjou’s exploitation of Petr Cech and John Terry’s embarrassingly uncharacteristic uncertainty for his tap-in equaliser yesterday bordered on the surreal. In fact it was so uncharacteristic that I think it’s hardly worth criticising and instead just chalking up as ‘one of those things’ – suggesting that John Terry needs to work on his positioning/movement for set pieces seems as pointless to me as it would’ve been advising Sachin to brush up on his forward defensive. (Very pointless – in other words).
There have been some interesting opinion pieces published regarding John Terry since the weekend’s victory over Everton. Martin Samuel suggested in The Mail yesterday morning that if Chelsea manage to win the league, then the centre half has to be a serious candidate for ‘player of the year’. Whilst I’m not sure about this, I am sure John is playing as well now as he has done at any point over the last three years. With his lack of pace exposed by Andre Villas-Boas’ tactics, the drawn out consequences of racism charges marring much of his time under Robbie di Matteo, and injuries last year during most of Rafa Benitez’ reign, for the last few campaigns I think Terry has been seen as an almost comedic figure by the wider football-viewing public, gracelessly approaching the end of his career, rather than as probably the most consistently brilliant centre half of the century. And so, only by the standards of the last couple of seasons I think, can anybody call his performances this year exceptional or award worthy. These past two years aside, I think this season, he’s just played like his usual old self. It is great though, it must be said, to have him back.
And so, once again, it looks rather like we’ll soon end up being the last English club standing in the Champions League, with Utd, City and Arsenal all losing their first legs. Some disappointing performances form English sides this past fortnight has prompted many to come out and rubbish the PL’s self proclaimed status as the best league in the world. I think they’re wrong to do this. As the German football writer Raphael Honigstein pointed out on Tuesday, though there might not be any side in England currently amongst the top 4 or 5 in Europe, the comparative average strength of the top 7 or 8 clubs in the PL is much stronger than that in Spain or Germany.
It can’t be a coincidence that English club’s performances in Europe have dropped since the established top four of the latter half of the previous decade became broken up by Liverpool’s decline and City’s money. With competition for Champions League places more intense now than it has been for years, it makes sense, given the financial incentives, that the main focus for teams should be on next year’s qualification, rather than the present year’s (most likely un-winnable) last 16 or quarter final tie.
And yet (last season aside), despite the comparative chaos at the top of the league table, Chelsea’s performances in Europe have remained markedly consistent and professional, even as the quality of the side has suffered through this re-building phase. Man City have the strongest squad in the league, no doubt, though some are beginning to make Chelsea favourites for the title, citing a slightly easier run-in as the main reason why. If Chelsea do win the league though, it don’t think it;ll be because of the fixture list, it’ll be because of this mysterious, endemic ability we have to win a game and produce a performance when it truly matters. It’s this ability that allows us to maintain our pride and reputation in Europe whilst the rest of the PL continues to choke. Not that it bothers us really, but to Olympiakos? That’s just embarrassing.