Tales From An April Evening

Chelsea vs. Benfica : 4 April 2012.

Chelsea went into the return leg with Benfica nursing a 1-0 lead from the first game the previous week. The advantage was clearly with us. However, during the day, I commented to a few friends that I was strangely subdued about the game in the evening. We were clearly in a great position to advance to the semi-final, but maybe it was the daunting task of facing the Barcelona colossus which was weighing heavy on my mind. I was also uneasy with us being in a relatively good position. We are usually faced with greater struggles on the path of that elusive first-ever Champions League trophy. I commented that it would certainly be a very odd evening if, for example, we glided into an early lead and then added another security goal in the second-half. As a Chelsea fan used to hardships and heartbreaks, that sort of scenario would be most surprising. I even had a title for my match report worked out; “Tales From UnChelsea.”

Well, I needn’t have worried. If ever there was a “typical Chelsea” performance, this was it.

I collected Parky from The Pheasant car park just before 4pm, just as a passing rainstorm had deposited a few drops of rain. He quickly scrambled inside, we shook hands – “here we go again, son” – and we departed. Parky was clearly under the weather; he had a bad cold and was suffering. There was even a slight risk of him not attending.

We chatted relentlessly on the drive east and the trip to HQ followed a typical pattern. We made good time until the approach into London, but then the traffic slowed. I eventually pulled in at 6.45pm. It had taken us almost three hours to travel 95 miles.

Inside The Goose, things were relatively quiet, but my closest Chelsea mates were gathered together. Time for a single pint. Jesus arrived late but we had just enough time for a small chat. I set off ahead of the rest as I wanted to get in to pin up the “VPN” banner. As I passed Fulham Broadway at 7.30pm, there was a lovely match day buzz taking place, with paces quickening, voices chattering. There were a few stray Benfica fans darting in and out of the moving mass of Chelsea supporters, but nowhere near the number of Napoli supporters in the previous round.

The façade of the West Stand was adorned with two large Champions League banners and, down below in a central position, the statue of Peter Osgood was standing out clearly.

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There was no line at the MHU turnstiles; remember the capacity of this stand is cut by around 4,000 for Champions League knock-out games. I sidled past a young couple and overheard the girl say in a broad London accent –

“Oh, I hate these scanners. I had trouble with them when I went to The Arsenal.”

I turned around just as her bloke gave her an old-fashioned look. I rolled my eyes and commented –

“I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that.”

I got to my seat at 7.40pm and I scrambled up to the back wall of the upper tier to pin up “Vinci.” Steve gave me a hand and then went down to assist Daz with the unleashing of the flag. I reached my seat just as the teams appeared onto the pitch. We were all given free flags again and for a few fleeting moments, Stamford Bridge was a picture. Benfica’s fans were bristling with noise and colour in the opposite corner. I noted how bright the Benfica shirts were; almost a pink hue to their shirts. Benfica brought more flags than most other European teams to The Bridge. There was a Union Jack and a flag of St. Georges; clearly the London branch of their supporters club was out in force. I took a few photos; Champions League Nights are so photogenic, what with the teams walking past the fluttering CL flag and then the formal line-up, the stands rippling with colour. The balconies were festooned with Chelsea flags and banners; we had clearly made a special effort. The game was live on national television and we needed to make an impression. The match kicked off and I quickly scanned the line-up; I presumed we were keeping the 4-2-3-1 formation. Brana fit, Lamps in, Kalou in, Torres alone up front.

We began the match attacking “my” end, the Matthew Harding Stand, and it again felt strange. Benfica began strongly. However, a lovely volley from a lurking David Luiz was smashed in from an angle, but a Benfica defender blocked it. We hoped that further attacks would be soon cascading down on the Benfica goal. Just after, Juan Mata was clearly offside before he shot home and I really couldn’t believe how many fans in close proximity had cheered the goal. I quickly checked on the linesman, raising his flag, when I saw Mata break . Who are these people?

On twenty minutes, Ashley Cole raced on to a lofted ball, deep in the Benfica box, and was sent sprawling. Ashley threw up his arms in protest, but I wasn’t convinced from my angle. It looked like a confluence of bodies to me. My friend Alan had already taken an immediate dislike to the Slovenian referee, but we were both smiling when we saw him purposefully point to the penalty spot. As always, I thought back to the “four penalties that weren’t” against Barcelona and had a little chuckle to myself.

Amidst protests from the Benfica players, there was a long delay. The ‘keeper made a point of not retreating to his line and had a little staring duel with Frank Lampard, the anointed penalty taker. Frank dispatched the ball and the net rippled once more. He very rarely lets us down on Champions League nights from that penalty spot, does he?

David Luiz attempted a typically elaborate turn just inside his own half, but an extra touch lost him the ball amidst groans and jeers from the watching thousands. I pictured the scene in living rooms throughout the UK, from Penzance to Peterhead, from Bexleyheath to Barrow, with millions of armchair viewers berating our Brazilian centre-half.

On the half hour, a well-worked Benfica free-kick resulted in a John Terry clearance off the line. We take this sort of behaviour for granted at times – our captain’s positional sense has always been one of his very strongest skills – but it is always wonderful to see his blue shirt appear at the right place at the right time again and again. We breathed a massive sigh of relief as Brana hacked away the loose ball.

Benfica were in the ascendency, no doubts. I was too busy taking a photograph to see the “studs-up” challenge by Pereira on Mikel. The crowd were soon letting the referee know it was his second yellow and off he went. So much for the “UEFA Hate Chelsea” conspiracy-theorists, we had been given a penalty and Benfica were now down to ten men. Amongst all this, the noise wasn’t great; we could sense that Benfica were still capable of scoring. However, in the closing seconds of the first-half, Ramires sent over a tempting cross which avoided the ‘keeper, but also missed the run of Torres by a few feet. It was only one of a few chances we had crafted in that first forty-five minutes.

At half-time, Alan and I chatted about the half. We had been out-shot by Benfica and had ridden our luck. We spoke about an incident which had taken place mid-way through the half. Juan Mata had been strongly-tackled and the ball ran out for a throw-in, but Mata had been sent sprawling down below us. The crowd roared for a free-kick and Mata stared hard at the referee. It seemed to me that the referee didn’t really think it was a foul, but bowed to crowd pressure and the earnest reaction of Mata, who is not a diver, and gave us the free-kick. It was an insightful piece of play which taught me how difficult it must be to ref at such a high intensity game. Rather them than me.

At the break, Neil Barnett posed a conundrum. The half-time guest was a player, a centre-back, from the early-sixties who had since gone on to manage Benfica. I was stumped. I knew that Alan Harris had been with Terry Venables at Barcelona, but didn’t know he had been involved with Benfica.

It was John Mortimore, who briefly appeared on the pitch for a rousing reception.

Neil Barnett 1 Chris Axon 0.

The second-half began with a superb save from Petr Cech after Cardozo’s effort was heading towards a top corner. The artistry and athleticism from our great ‘keeper in that one moment was just amazing to watch at close quarters. Aimar was narrowly wide just after.

At the other end, the previously quiet Kalou sent a low ball across which was met by an unrushing Ramires. From my vantage point, some 100 yards away, all I saw was a blue shirt and the ball then somehow bouncing away from the goal. My immediate thought was –

“Oh God, that wasn’t Torres was it?”

A Benfica player speculatively struck a lob from way out which didn’t trouble the Chelsea goal. At the other end, Fernando Torres nimbly turned and worked the ball so he could caress the ball in to the left-hand side of the goal. We held our breath, but the shot was deflected for a corner. Just after, a nice little move involving Mata playing a “one two” with another Chelsea player but the shot was saved.

John Terry was substituted by Gary Cahill. Like for like.

Benfica still enjoyed a lot of the ball and had a flurry of chances. Sturdy challenges and well-timed blocked from the Chelsea rear guard stopped an equaliser. Kalou missed a great chance. We grew tense.

The Benfica fans were not the loudest European visitors, but I noted a chant midway through the second-half which struck a chord. I couldn’t, of course, decipher the chant completely, but the words “Michel Platini” rang out clear. I filled in the dots…I guessed that it was something like “Michel Platini – You Got Your Wish” or “Michel Platini – You Only Like Big Teams.” It seems that Platini is disliked by fans all over Europe. It made me smile when I realised that Benfica felt aggrieved too. Platini ranks as one of the very best European players of all time; he was certainly a magical touch player at Juventus, wearing that number 10 shirt, helping to define the role of a “Number Ten” player in fact. However, despite his strengths as a player, he is clearly disliked these days; I still laugh when I think of my Juventus mate Tullio now calling him a “son of a bitch” in his UEFA role.

I commented to Alan that I could rarely remember the time dragging like this one. Sixty minutes played…seventy minutes played…we were a man up, but it certainly seemed that Benfica were playing with a spare man. The clock ticked slowly on…Meireles on for Mata.

On 84 minutes, that man Cech stretched again to prevent Djalo scoring, but the resultant corner ended with a goal. The ball was swung in and Garcia ran unmarked to leap unhindered from a central position. It was a truly shocking goal to concede. The Bridge grew nervier still. Going out was now a distinct possibility and we all felt our emotions being intensified. I leaned forward and concentrated further.

“Come On Boys.”

At last there was noise. The Bridge responded with great bellows of “Chelsea Chelsea Chelsea Chelsea.”

Didier Drogba replaced Fernando Torres. If only he had been on the pitch to head away that corner as so often is his role. There was a very nervy moment when Benfica broke through the offside trap on 87 minutes – it looked offside to me – but a weak shot didn’t trouble Petr Cech.

Deep inside stoppage time, the ball was cleared towards Raul Meireles. I watched his dramatic run from deep through the lens of my camera…I took two snaps as his strong run continued and as he unleashed a goal bound strike, I snapped again. I hardly saw the ball slam into the net, but I certainly heard the roar.

Get In!

I saw Meireles run towards Parky Corner and the Chelsea players joined him. Around us, we were roaring.

We were safe.

That run must rank alongside the cherished John Spencer run and goal against Austria Memphis in the autumn of 1994. It was truly a phenomenal strike. It reminded me, in its timing and execution, of the famous Geoff Hurst goal in 1996 too.

“It Is Now.”

There was a lovely feeling as I bounced down the Fulham Road. We darted into The Goose to celebrate with Jesus, from Mexico, and Rob, from Wiltshire. The air of contentment was tempered slightly by the fact that we were now due to face our old Catalan foes FCB once more. Parky was still feeling ropey but finished off his pint as Rob and his mates chatted about flights to Barcelona. Jesus’ face was a picture; he’s a lucky lad. He’ll be there in Barcelona.

We meet Tottenham on the Sunday and we play Barcelona on the Wednesday. My immediate view would be for us to prioritise the Spurs game. We have a 50% chance of beating Spurs. I’d say we have a 20% chance of beating Barca. In a nutshell, I can stomach losing to Barca, but I cannot – and will not – contemplate losing at Wembley to Tottenham. If di Matteo is mulling over his team selection options for Wembley, my advice to him would be to play his strongest eleven against Spurs. With any luck, Spurs will struggle and we’ll easily dismiss them. Then, on the Wednesday, play whoever is fit and up for it…don’t plan for two games Robbie; plan for Tottenham, then see what state of fitness and mind we are in for the Champions League game.

But then again, who am I? I’m not the manager.

We made great time on the return home to a sleeping West of England. Although Parky was still very groggy, we chatted about our crazy season. Never in my wildest dreams, back in August, did I think we would reach the Champions League semi-finals this year. For our games with Barca, we need a repeat of our performances against Valencia and Napoli. If anything, our faltering performance against Benfica should at least remind us all that we must not be complacent.

It’s a tough ask, isn’t it? I’m just glad we are at home first and I hope we can scramble together a foot-hold in the tie. If we were to play away first, maybe the tie would be all over too soon.

We return to the seemingly mundane league over the Easter Weekend with two games in three days at venues just two miles apart. I have a feeling that our collective minds will be elsewhere, but six points will do very nicely.

Let’s go.

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