About mid way through the second half of yesterday’s game, it occurred to me, as I sat there at the back of a pool club in Birmingham, disproportionately and disappointingly filled with Spurs and Arsenal fans, that I could’ve written a review of this game, hours before kickoff. The score line may have been a surprise ultimately, but the content and the manner of proceedings at The Bridge on Saturday evening were all too predictable. In what was, on paper, our third most difficult remaining game of the domestic season, we managed show all of the discipline and professionalism which has characterised our ascent to this position of serious contention for the league title; and we also aptly demonstrated the ruthlessness, which is what, if anything, will see us first over the finishing line come May.
Not for the first time this year however, for the duration of the first half, Chelsea were the poorer side. After an uncomfortable start and once they’d settled into their strangely designed bespoke formation, Spurs controlled the game throughout the first period. With Nabil Bentaleb and Sandro dictating the midfield and with Kyle Walker pressing forwards, making some semi-decent runs from the right wing, the visitors managed to achieve the highest possession percentage for an away side at SB in any half of football this season. Which I suppose is something for them to take away, even if it amounted to precisely nothing.
It is perhaps the truest testament to the improvement we’ve made this year, that as I sat there in a pool club in Birmingham, drinking my stale pint of European lager, watching Spurs practically dominate the game for 45 minutes, I almost couldn’t have felt more relaxed. The ease with which the back four (with the assistance of Nemanja Matic) withstood the attacking pressure they faced was remarkable. None of them, even once, looking panicked or caught out of position. Together they exude the confidence of a defensive outfit that knows they’re capable of shutting out any attack this league has to offer. Certainly not in my living memory, have the performances of a backline been so integral to a side’s league-winning prospects. Eden Hazard might be the genius in attack, single headedly raising his team out of the mediocrity its conservativeness can lead to on occasion, but make no mistake, the defence is what makes this side special.
Of course the other reason for my rather marked lack of concern at half time was the fact that generally, recent history would suggest the level of Chelsea’s first half performances are a pretty poor indicator of how the game is likely to end up. As against Fulham last week and Everton the week before, we came out much better after the break. As he explained, Mourinho’s decision to bring on Oscar for Frank Lampard at half time was an obvious one. The Brazilian, bridging the gap between the forwards and the midfield immediately made an impact as Chelsea raised the tempo of the game and quickly fashioned two chances, which were spurned by Eto’o and Schurrle. But then, and not the first time, the deadlock ending up being broken as a result of a terrible defensive error – Jan Vertonghen slipping over and under-hitting a back pass to Hugo Lloris – for which Samuel Eto’o was on hand to intercept and tuck beneath the Frenchman.
I’ve actually lost count now of the number goals we’ve scored this season as a result of practically unforgivable defensive and goalkeeping mistakes. This year may not go down as a vintage season in the career of Samuel Eto’o, but were it not for his wiliness and guile in these panicky situations then there are several key points I can recall that we would’ve missed out on. It was the cunning of the Cameroonian which ultimately sealed the game two minutes later when he received Hazard’s low cross in a way so Younes Kaboul had no choice but to plough into the back of the forward, leaving the referee no choice but to send off the big centre half and award the penalty – duly dispatched by EH.
The final pair of goals were also the consequence of dismal defending, which itself was the result of Tim Sherwood’s helplessly makeshift line up following Kaboul’s dismissal. The first came after Sandro failed to clear a low cross into the box as a centre half; the other after a misguided headed pack pass from Kyle Walker in a central midfield position. Demba Ba was the player on hand this time to make sure neither blunder went unpunished, as he ended up trebling his league goal tally for the season.
Man of the Match:
Though his hat-trick performance against Manchester Utd will doubtless go down as his most famous in a Chelsea shirt, I actually thought that in the second half yesterday, Eto’o had his best game for the club. In his anticipation of the mistake for the first goal and in his drawing of the foul for the penalty, he provided exactly what you felt he must have been bought to the club to do. Not to tear a side apart with the dazzling skill and speed for which he will be remembered, but to provide the cunning and the experience you would expect of a formerly world class goal scorer, especially in these big matches as we approach the end of the season. His goal celebration, in which he doubled over at the corner flag, holding his hip with a mocking expression of discomfort in old age, I thought was a nice moment also. In a humorous and harmless way doing away with any suggestions that he was offended by Mourinho’s off-hand questioning of the veracity of his official age. He was never going to single-handedly win us the league, but Eto’o now I think is finally starting to accomplish what he was signed for.
For the majority of our squad members, the next two months will involve their first ever serious attempt at becoming Premier League champions, and to have a player like Eto’o leading the line with them, with all of his experience of winning trophies and scoring big goals, could yet still prove to be a decisive advantage.