By the end, the game had become painful viewing, with Chelsea stampeding through our injury-ravaged central defence and insolently swatting our feeble attempts to score. However, such thoughts should not totally obliterate the might-have-beens. Earlier we had severely troubled their much vaunted defence, the best centre half in the league had departed and of course the penalty that was not to be.
Have you noticed that Andy Gray, for all his smug self-satisfied pontificating about refereeing decisions, never gives an opinion without seeing at least two replays? I called it a penalty first time and so it was. It was a crucial moment, as much for the timing as for the prospect of a goal, because frankly we did not look like scoring any other way. Our team does not yet have the inner strength and resilience to lift itself from the doldrums against the quality teams by sheer force. Rather, we need something external, like a penalty or a bit of luck, or maybe a spurt of individual brilliance. Resilience: a word that earlier this season I threatened to return to repeatedly. It’s key and we don’t have enough of it yet. Today, we found no way back.
Harry has to shoulder much of the blame for this one. In my preview I wondered if he may have something up his sleeve to cover the left side problem. When I heard the team, I thought Jenas would be told to do a job there, but it never occurred to me that Palacios was to take on that role. He failed to stop Bosingwa’s runs and left the centre exposed. He’s been the foundation of our teamwork since January, so there was little value in changing the very thing that has made us successful.
Also, it’s all very well Lennon having a roving role – Jol did something similar a couple of years ago away to Chelsea and we went two up before they cottoned on to the tactic. We lost 3-2. However, yesterday sustained width would have stretched our opponents and kept Cole occupied, limiting the freedom to attack that won the game.
In the centre, JJ did well enough but the game passed Hud by. It was all just a bit to quick for him after the first twenty minutes. Keane moved well but penalty apart he had one of his un-coordinated days on the ball. And King, great player though he is, how long can we carry the risk of another breakdown during the match.
In contrast, Chelsea move purposefully as a unit and are just so much more comfortable with each other. For them, walking onto the pitch feels like pulling on a thick jumper from the back of the drawer, well-worn and cosy, whereas we are itching from new wool straight out the packet. Ancelotti has experience at the highest level of world football and the Italian league is harsh and brutal. The way things are going, if the Scudetto is like swimming with piranhas, the Premier League is the dentist’s fishtank in Finding Nemo. Here’s an exclusive Ancelotti team talk: ‘OK, line up like you have over the last couple of years, Ash and Jose move up a bit.’ Top of the league.
Having played United and Chelsea in successive weeks, one glaring difference between them and us is the pace at which the game is played. More about this later in the week, when I have more time to write. In the meantime, I did not want to go the game but to those who did, we heard you loud and clear on TV, terrific support and huge kudos to each and every one of you.