Tales From A Love Affair Rekindled

Chelsea vs. Valencia : 6 December 2011.

This is Chelsea’s ninth consecutive season in which we have competed in the Champions League. On all other eight occasions, we have qualified for the knockout phase. Our first season was in 1999-2000, but we then dipped-out for three seasons before qualifying again in 2003, just in time for Roman Abramovich to join the party. Way back in our inaugural season, which began with that pulsating 0-0 draw with Milan at Stamford Bridge in September 1999, the format was different with two group phases. In that campaign, we advanced from both group stages to eventually lose to Barcelona in the quarter finals. Every autumn for the past nine years, our football fixture list has been speckled with foreign names and it has been a wonderful period. Of course, we have been the nearly men of European football in these seasons, with heroic failures, unjust refereeing decisions and plain bad luck holding us back from the ultimate prize in club football. However, in our tenth Champions League season, we had a proud record to uphold; we had never failed to get out of the first round of matches.

Parky and I were in no doubt that we would prevail against Valencia. Failure was simply not an option.

Within a few minutes of joining the traffic on the eastbound carriageway of the M4, the weather became atrocious. There was rain and there was mist. There were low lying clouds and there was spray from the cars in front. At one point, the horizon was not able to be perceived. I was simply driving into a mass of grey.

I was relishing this match at Chelsea. Work was behind me and I could relax. But this weather was a pain.

We spoke briefly of the game.

“Surely Lampard and Torres will start, mate.”

But then we spoke of other things and the time passed quickly. We joined the mass of cars making the final slow approach into London. At Chiswick, the Porsche garage was having an open evening and we spotted a band of musicians setting up some instruments to provide entertainment for the moneyed customers. Leggy blondes were teetering on high heels, offering champagne.

It made me realise how affluent parts of London have become.

Parky and I made a few jokes and pressed on.

After three hours of battling the inclement weather and the heavy traffic, we joined the regulars in the decidedly working-class Goose pub, right on the crossroads of the North End Road and Lillee Road. The place seemed quiet. We soon got the drinks in – a pint of lager apiece. Time was against us, though. Only time for the one, rapidly quaffed in 15 minutes, amidst chat with a few mates about the night’s upcoming game.

“No Lampard and Torres, mate.”

At 7.15pm, I set off for The Bridge.

At 7.43pm, I was in, just as the Champions League anthem was echoing around the packed Stamford Bridge stadium. I couldn’t evaluate how The Goose was so quiet, yet the ground was full. I guessed that there were fewer regulars and less locals at the game – but more tourists. No doubt that tourists are more likely to spend a pre-match in the immediate high end bars around the stadium and are unlikely to venture up to the hardened end of the North End Road, amongst the Polish food stores, the Ethiopian cafes, the discount shops, the second-hand furniture stores and the launderettes.

Our pre-match habits are long engrained and we don’t often venture too far from The Goose. We know which side our bread is buttered. But I’ve often thought that it would be good to experience a few more boozers in and around HQ. To be honest, we would, if it wasn’t so expensive.

Alan reminded me that the Valencia players were wearing plain white shirts, with no commercial adornments. We made up for it with an extra line of text – “Right To Play” – beneath our rather large numbers on the backs of our home jerseys. I can’t say that I find this aesthetically pleasing to be honest.

The game began amidst vibrant support from the home stands.

“Chelsea” – clap, clap, clap.

“Chelsea” – clap, clap, clap.

“Chelsea” – clap, clap, clap.

“Chelsea” – clap, clap, clap.

And what an opening few minutes. Daniel Sturridge, again deployed in the wide right berth, played in a ball to Didier Drogba. He laid off the ball to Raul Meireles, in the Lampard role arriving on time on the edge of the box. He unleashed a powerful drive which was well saved by the Valencia ‘keeper Diego Alves. Right after, Juan Mata did well to recover a ball from Studge down inside the Shed penalty area. He played the ball back to the waiting Didier Drogba who had time to take an extra touch and coolly placed the ball into the goal.

After just three minutes, we were 1-0 up and boy it felt good.

Just after, it was Valencia’s turn. Jordi Alba’s run beat our offside trap and his angled drive thudded against Petr Cech’s near upright.

We had been warned. This was a lively game, with lots of running and intelligent passing. David Albelda tested Cech with a long drive, but our ‘keeper managed to claw it away at full stretch.

We had been warned again.

Midway through this pulsating half, Drogba at his finest. A ball was played up to him inside his own half and he leapt well, bringing the ball under his control before spinning away from his markers, bludgeoning through the opponent’s defence and laying a divine ball into the path of Ramires. Our lithe Brazilian advanced, shrugged off a challenge and swept the ball into the net with the ‘keeper stranded.

We had a lovely purple patch towards the end of the first period, with Mata at the heart of our best moves. Sturridge, wide on the right, was often involved but his final ball often lacked purpose. But I felt for him; he’s not a winger. We continue to be a mix-match of personalities in positions which are often unfamiliar. We are in search of a new methodology and we’ll get there eventually.

With the crowd buoyed by the two goals, the atmosphere was louder than usual – at times – this season. We were playing well and in a moment of clarity in this season of change, I settled on the opinion that if we were changing our personnel, let us have some fun and some goals along the way. In the seasons when Chelsea habitually won nothing, the least we desired was entertainment. We can’t say we haven’t been entertained this season, can we? High-scoring games, tons of goals and a thousand talking points.

A right royal blue roller-coaster of a season lies ahead.

Yes, the first-half belonged to Chelsea and I saw some nice positives in our attacking play, but a few nervous errors from Ivanovic at the back. Luiz was thankfully on the fringes. I’m still not sure about him. Sturridge and Meireles had additional chances, but Valencia managed a share of the ball.Thankfully, we kept their forward thrusts to a minimum. The away fans seemed to be pretty subdued.

John Dempsey was on the pitch at half-time and he got a warm reception from the Stamford Bridge crowd. The Steve Miller Band’s “Abracadabra” gave way to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” and I was transported to ‘eighties America, all naff denim and big hair.

https://www.facebook.com/video/video…50502387062658

After the break, Valencia kept plugging away but the most clearcut chances fell our way. A Drogba free-kick whistled past a post. A lovely ball from the maturing Oriel Romeu released the speedy Sturridge, but his shot was saved. On the hour, I suddenly realised that Valencia were enjoying their most dominant spell of the game.

The Chelsea supporters were hushed and nervous. Both Alan and I joined in with every slight sniff of a supportive chant, but we were in the minority. Feghouli slammed a ball at the Chelsea goal on 62 minutes, but Petr Cech threw himself at the ball and made a superb save.

Mikel replaced the effervescent Ramires and this decision was met with a few boos and catcalls.

The old standard was sung heartily for a few moments –

“Come On Chelsea, Come On Chelsea, Come On Chelsea, Come On Chelsea.”

Next, it was the turn of a rampaging Drogba, released by Sturridge, to bear down on goal with nobody chasing him. Maybe he had too much time, but he took an extra touch and his shot went wide. He lay prostrate on the ground for a few seconds, exhausted with his physical exertions. As he got to his feet, the Matthew Harding serenaded the Ivorian and it was clear that there was a rediscovered love for this most complex of characters.

This was his night. The Drogba of old.

Twisting into space, battling and fighting, then sprinting away from attentive foes.

Fearsome stuff.

Then, some interplay betwixt the two sets of fans, with the home fans answering the cries of the visitors.

“Valencia!”

“Chelsea!”

“Valencia!”

“Chelsea!”

“Valencia!”

“Chelsea!”

“Valencia!”

“Chelsea!”

“Valencia!”

“Chelsea!”

“Valencia!”

“Chelsea!”

“Valencia!”

“Chelsea!”

“Valencia!”

“Chelsea!”

Soon after, Mata played in Drogba and the night’s hero calmly drew the ‘keeper before rolling the ball into the waiting net.

The place erupted and I watched as Drogba raced over to my corner of the pitch. He gestured “thanks” to Juan Mata, posed in a typically iconic stance and then was engulfed by his relieved team mates. It was a lovely moment.

We could sigh a massive breath. We had ridden the storm and we were through. Over in Belgium, we had heard that Genk were helping us with a goal against Ballack’s Leverkusen, but then the news came through of an equaliser.

It did not matter.

Malouda and Torres were late substitutions, but their contributions were of no importance. Another great save from Petr Cech – low down, on the line, from a header – simply reinforced the feeling that this was our night.

This was a great game. I really enjoyed it. Valencia were no mugs. It reminded me of recent seasons in Europe when our will to win always seemed to carry us through. I was very impressed with Romeu, Meireles and Ramires in the midfield. Mata again was involved everywhere. In one memorable moment, both wingers were overlapping each other on the right flank. Never has a left winger been given so much licence to roam wherever he likes. Sturridge drifted out of the game, but he shows great promise. The defence was solid, John Terry the star. Petr Cech had one of his best games for ages.

But the main man – the terror of the Valencia defence – was the number eleven.

Welcome back Didier.

We have missed you.

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