He shoots from distance. The keeper sees it early and gets everything behind it.
Ultimately it comes down to the keeper. Number one, at the back, unique in that he and only he has the precious gift of being able to use his hands to repel the voracious attackers. Sure there are tactics. he’s part of a team, the back four is really a back five, with him in a crucial role. Yet he alone has special powers, to leap and soar in defiance of anything that can be thrown at him, our very own superhero to save the day at the last gasp when the villain is about to snatch the crown jewels and the girl.
Like the best superheroes, they are mortal – it’s what makes them so fascinating. Because of what they do, their human frailty is played out in full view of the public. No hiding place. Effort or hard running can’t conceal an off-day. There they are, Waiting for something to come their way. Waiting for the moment that shapes their day, that defines the team as successful or failures. Most of all, the moment when their personality, their soul, their innermost thoughts and secret fears are waiting, waiting to be laid bare. As he shoots from distance.
The keeper, our keeper, defines the club as well as our fortunes. Sustained brilliance for extended periods made him and the team successful. Our belief soared as he reached high into the sky to keep the A******l at bay or flung himself sideways, Stretch Armstrong come alive. But inside, deep down, gnawing away at our guts, there are demons. Most of the time they are under control but this fear is a fatal flaw waiting to be surface, just lying there and waiting.
Our keeper is the team. However well we shift the ball around or roar down the flanks striking terror into the hearts of hapless defenders, there’s something nasty lurking in the background. There’s a weakness, hard to put your finger on it, but it’s there, in the fans’ hearts and the players’ minds. The name we give it is a lack of resilience. You can’t see, smell of taste it, but it’s there. Just waiting.
So in this game, our keeper is the team. At kick-off expectations are low. Last week’s disjointed disappointment lingers and our opponents have a fearsome home record. But our team can play, and so we do, very well. Our manager has a plan this week and outwits his rival. They think we are easy, can’t defend, so they play their two main strikers and an attacking midfielder. To begin with, we are surprised but our manager gestures frantically from the touchline and all settles down. Sandro’s in front of the back four so that both limits the space and he can track the runners into the box. Rafa slots into midfield but not so deep that he can’t be an outlet as we keep possession and move it forward. He and Lennon, not always the best defensively, work hard. Bale is circumspect with his runs.
Inspiration comes from the back. Reassured by the protection in front of them, Dawson and Gallas are rock solid. Alongside them, Corluka and Kaboul stay tight, for the most part at least. Both can’t resist the temptation to wander occasionally but it’s OK, because Gallas has Torres in his pocket. He made sure he was around whenever the Spaniard gained possession, and with Gallas around, he didn’t have possession for long. Gallas was ritually booed for his efforts, which is rich from a club that stakes its future on players agitating for a move for the sake of money. No doubt the irony was lost on the Chelsea faithful.
Never mind the organisation, there’s magic in the air. A clever touch from Rafa and Sandro bursts forward. He reminds me of Juantereno, the great Cuban runner who also had a powerful muscular build yet was the most remarkable athlete. This athlete slams it into the top corner, a terrific goal.
Now we have something to defend, something to fight for. Our keeper shares the mood. Efficient and businesslike in the box, he then positively took off to fingertip a Drogba free-kick away. Today is going to be a good day. Our manager is very much in charge. He tells Sandro to stick to his job, the goal has put us ahead but his defensive work is how we will win the match.
Then he shoots, from distance because he’s increasingly desperate. Can’t get nearer so Lampard shoots and our keeper has everything behind it. Everything. He does everything right, arms, legs, body, yet our keeper has a fatal flaw that has been brutally exposed these past few weeks. Our keeper lets it through.
As it rolls towards the goal, the season flashes past in an instant. The good football, cracking games, attacking brilliance undermined by unforced errors at the back….as it rolls towards the goal, agonisingly, waiting for the moment of searing pain as it dribbles over. Pain in the abject cock-up, utterly avoidable, pain in the Chelsea celebrations, pain as the season slips away.
Yet nothing compares with the pain of what follows. It looks in to me, certain in my vantage point of my sofa, but it isn’t. The referee and lineman, like our keeper, are human and fallible, and merit forgiveness, but this is not right. They can’t give a decision unless they are certain. If they cannot be sure it’s over, it’s not over.
In that instant, our keeper, our team, found redemption then lost it in the blink of a gnat’s eye. Mistake maybe but to keepers, versed in psychology greater than any university professor, it’s either in or it isn’t. Hit the woodwork five times a game? Great, the woodwork’s not in, is it? This was a save, a dodgy, unnecessarily dramatically close save, but a save it was.
And so the game and the season turns on the ref. Chelsea turn from the desperation as epitomised by the long shot that started this all to a potent attacking unit. We continue to play well and hold our shape but gradually we are pushed back, the team doing well save for Pav who is isolated and ineffective up front. Bale could have made more runs to push his man back and seize the initiative but with Torres vanquished by Gallas, Chelsea now look better with Drogba in the middle. Sandro and Modric are outstanding as first Lennon then Rafa fade, Sandro in particular makes three, four last ditch tackles as he tracks back. An outstanding game, closely followed by Luka who purrs throrugh the match.
It looks good but danger threatens. Our keeper is rigid with fear now. His rictus grin fools no one. It’s a horrible mask of terror. They shoot and he can’t move his feet but rooted to the spot he beats it away and with a bit of luck it’s cleared.
Then Chelsea rip us apart. It’s great move, with everyone back first Gallas then, fatally, Dawson is forced out of position. No alternative, we are so stretched. Drogba’s into that space, a touch and it’s in. From the all seeing eye of the sofa I shout “offside” to no one, more in desperation than expectancy. But look, here’s the replay and I was right.
No amount of organisation or effort can compensate for two errors by the officials. Chelsea were the better team but Spurs far exceeded my admittedly low expectations with a disciplined and determined rearguard action. After my criticism last week, full credit to Harry for his tactics and to the team for rising to the occasion. Pity the same can’t be said for the officials.
It’s a gloomy, headshaking how did that happen morning as I return to my sofa to write this. The way I feel, I may not get up, ever again. However, there was so much good in what we did yesterday, here’s a note of optimism to finish. Sandro and Modric could be as good a midfield partnership as any in the league, in Europe even. They are just remarkable. Hope that helps. It’s done something for me. Look, I almost smiled.