For all the ease with which Galatasaray were put down on Wednesday, our progression through to the quarter finals of the Champions League did little to erase the concerns which our defeat to Aston Villa had caused, regarding the seriousness of our title challenge. Needless to say, yesterday’s victory over Arsenal has done away with them completely, despite the fact Arsene Wenger’s side were, for the most part, even poorer than our Turkish opposition in mid-week. Last weekend when Man City went down to 10 men so early and yet still managed to win the game – that felt to me like their first real statement of intent as the season approaches its final, decisive game-weeks. After surrendering our momentum to Pellegrini’s side last Saturday it was essential we responded; hammering a title rival 6-0 I think must qualify as an acceptable response.
In a refreshing break from tradition, we started the game extremely quickly; the combination of our intensity in the opening stages coupled with the quality of our experience effectively ‘killing’ the game before it had even really started. A good early save from Petr Cech led to a passage of play where Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was dispossessed in midfield, with Andre Schurrle being able to break and play through Samuel Eto’o – for the Cameroonian to score in yet another big home match and his third goal in three starts. Minutes later, Nemanja Matic blew Santi Cazorla off the ball and supplied the ball for Schurrle once again to storm at Laurent Koscielny and fire home from 18 yards.
Mourinho later declared the game over at this point, but if any doubt remained, it will have survived only a few minutes longer, before the away side bizarrely conceded a penalty and the officials wrongly sent off the wrong man. It was all very confusing. Chamberlain’s handball was an obvious foul but it wasn’t preventing a goal and didn’t warrant a red card – least of all for Kieran Gibbs. Normal order resumed when Hazard slid in the penalty kick with trademark imperturbability. The rest of the game then generally followed the pattern of Chelsea passing the ball around easily, making Arsenal chase shadows waiting for more inevitable mistakes to be made. Oscar broke his 11 game goal drought with goals before and after half time whilst Mohamed Salah scored his first ever goal for the club in the 71st minute, beating the off-side trap and rolling the ball under Szczesny, finishing with the same level of composure which had distinguished the Egyptian at Basel. All in all, I think it’s fair to say we subjected the Gunners to a ‘good hiding’ (Wenger’s own phrase), leaving them all but out of the title race. Time for them to focus on not throwing away the FA Cup, I would suggest.
No doubt it will be the dire performances of Arsenal and the match officials which earn the headlines, but there were some excellent individual contributions made by Chelsea players yesterday which were worth taking note of. Cesar Azpilicueta in particular was a worthy MOTM winner. The Spaniard’s reputation has continued to rise all season, going from an able replacement for Ashley Cole to a solid all-round defender; he’s now far more than just a decent shout for being the best defensive full back in the country. The consistency of his performances this calendar year has been incredible.
Also, I think yesterday saw Andre Schurrle have his best game for Chelsea, playing with a confidence and purposefulness that makes him look twice as dangerous a player as usual. Though obviously not in the same class, the young German reminds me of Frank Lampard in a sense. Though not as technically gifted as some of his teammates, the quality of Schurrle’s finishing and direct running towards goal makes him a potentially lethal attacking player – I think he’ll score and assist a hell of a lot of goals for Chelsea down the years on the counter attack, even if he ends up contributing little else.
And finally, even though he only played nine minutes, Samuel Eto’o’s performance was another worth singling out. Even though Schurrle’s pass for the first goal wasn’t great, the veteran African legend still had far too much quality and composure to miss. Thankfully it seems his hamstring injury isn’t serious at all – he’s become far too important to our title chances in recent weeks to lose to injury now.
I expressed concern in this column on Monday that with the game being Wenger’s 1000th in charge of Arsenal, and after Mourinho’s insulting earlier remarks, that the stage seemed set for the Portuguese’ home record to be ended, in a fashion, poetically fitting of the legacy Wenger will ultimately leave behind at the Arsenal. I guess I was right about the stage being set for something– but not much else. Rather than inflict a historic win over his greatest adversary in the modern game, the Frenchman only ended up seeing his team dismantled, his tactics proven inept and his title-chances all but destroyed. The game was his joint worst as Arsenal boss and simultaneously Mourinho’s largest ever win in charge of Chelsea – surely the worst ever 1000th game in charge of a club any manager has ever had.
However, as pathetic and as desperate as Arsenal’s performance might have been, the opening period of yesterday’s game I think offered a fine insight and justification of Jose’s strategic decisions since the beginning of the season. In the early months of this campaign we saw Chelsea pressing sides hard but to little effect and with a very unstable base. The way in which we harried Arsenal early on yesterday and were so ruthless on the counter attack suggests those early season tactical issues have been dealt with. Next season, with Willian, Matic, Schurrle and Salah all fully adapted to the league and with a world class centre forward (hopefully) signed up, we will be a terrifying prospect through out Mourinho’s second season – as usual for him.
Champion’s League Draw:
Briefly, I suppose the best way of summarising our quarter final draw, is that whilst we shouldn’t be disappointed at having drawn PSG, they certainly won’t be disappointed at having drawn us. In a way I think this was probably the most intriguing draw we could’ve been given. Whilst the French side have a strike force of which we can only dream, we’re the side with the pedigree and the experience of winning big European ties. And though their defence/midfield is uber-talented with players like Veratti, Marquinhos and Matuidi, it’s also inexperienced/untested fully at this level. Full backs like Maxwell and Gregory Van Der Wiel aren’t the kind of players to give Eden Hazard too much of a hard time either. If we can turn the tie into a gritty, tactical contest, then I think we will probably squeeze through into the semis. If Zlatan’s in one of them moods however, then I doubt there’s much we can do. It should be a fascinating match-up, from beginning to end.