Tales From 24 Photographs From The Round Of 32

Chelsea vs. Sparta Prague : 21 February 2013.

On the evening of Thursday 21st. February, I took 58 photographs at the Chelsea vs. Sparta Prague game. I uploaded 24 of these to my latest Chelsea album on Facebook. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. Here are a few words about these photographs.

Photograph 1 : 8.01pm.

A close-up shot of the Europa League banner. This had been placed on the Stamford Bridge pitch in front of the West Stand, awaiting the arrival of the two teams. The Europa League represents a new competition for Chelsea Football Club although we took part in its predecessor, the UEFA Cup, in 2000-2001, 2001-2002 and 2002-2003. In the pub beforehand, my mate Daryl commented that he was tempted to miss the night’s game, but he has attended every single one of Chelsea’s European home games since our return in 1994, so felt compelled to buy a ticket. I’ve missed a few; the last one was, ironically, against Sparta Prague in November 2004, when I was tied down at work. I think I’ve missed five home games over the years; Vaalerenga, Hapoel Tel Aviv, MSK Zilina, Helsingborgs, Sparta Prague.

Photograph 2 : 8.03pm.

The two teams standing in a line. A TV cameraman is taking those up-close-and-personal shots of the players. Chelsea in their kit, Sparta wearing tracksuit tops. It was great to see John Terry back in the line-up.

Photograph 3 : 8.03pm.

A photograph of the yellow and burgundy Europa League flag. While the unfamiliar Europa League anthem was played, the flag was being fluttered in the centre-circle by a dozen UEFA clad helpers. With a new colour scheme – no more Chelsea blue and white on European midweek games for now – and with unfamiliar advertising hoardings around the circumference – Hankook, HTC – the night seemed strange from the off-set, like a game being played in a parallel universe. During the anthem, the away section lit up with a hundred or so mobile phone lights – like Napoli last season – and I noticed a few Sparta fans in other parts of the stadium too.

Photograph 4 : 8.04pm.

Another shot of the two teams, the Europa League banner in view. Although the first game at the Letna Stadium was poor, Sparta didn’t offer too much of a threat to Chelsea. I expected a comfortable passage to the next round – the awkwardly titled “Round of Sixteen” – and I had even gambled on flights to Amsterdam, expecting both Chelsea and Ajax to progress.

Photograph 5 : 8.04pm.

A close-up photograph of the Sparta Prague players shaking hands with the Chelsea team. I wondered what the Sparta “game-plan” would be. Contain or attack? Stick or twist?

Photograph 6 : 8.05pm.

A close-up shot of the away fans. In the pub before the game, there were around ten Czech fans, quietly chatting and drinking around a table. A couple were wearing Torino-esque pomegranate coloured Sparta scarves, but their match-day attire was understated and normal. There was even a couple of classically “high-cheek boned” Czech girls in the group. I approved.

Photograph 7 : 8.05pm.

Another close-up of the Czech fans. As soon as I had walked into the stadium, I noticed an orange glow emanating from the away corner. This surprised me since I knew that the Sparta kit colours were – like Roma – burgundy, white, black. After zooming in on the away section, the reason for the orange glow was apparent. Virtually every single one of the three thousand Sparta fans was wearing blue, yellow and red woollen hats. I had never seen this at a game before. Top marks to them. The Sparta crest is blue, yellow and red. Overall, the away end looked orange. What with the Europa League banners in the stadium too, this was turning out to be quite a new visual experience.

Photograph 8 : 8.05pm.

A photograph of the upper tier of the away section. More ski-hats, more colour. Of the three-hundred fans in the photo, there is only one without the hat. Typically, a few “half-and-half” scarves but, as this was a game between teams from two different leagues I saw no problem with that. It was a bitterly cold night in SW6 and everyone was wrapped up in warm jackets. A few wre wearing their Sparta shirts over their outer jackets; maybe their mothers weren’t around this morning to dress them properly. There was an absence of shiny puffer jackets, much beloved by the Italians. Maybe they haven’t reached Prague yet.

Photograph 9 : 8.15pm.

A shot of eight Chelsea pensioners, resplendent in their rich scarlet overcoats sitting at the rear of the East Middle. In front, there was an array of unoccupied seats. I had noted during the day that the Chelsea website had declared the match “sold-out.” This both pleased me and surprised me; the last thing that I wanted was the football world poking fun at Chelsea’s possibly spoiled fan base turning their collective nose up at the Europa League. However, although the rest of The Bridge was full, this corporate area – of some 2,000 seats – was predominantly unoccupied. The question to ask here is; did the corporates decide that this game was not worthy of their presence or did Chelsea get their pricing structure wrong?

Photograph 10 : 8.32pm.

A photograph just before the point of contact of Juan Mata’s boot as he aims a free-kick goal wards goal. The Sparta wall is just about to leap. By this stage in the game, despite a promising start with Torres squandering two good chances, Sparta had gone ahead via a quick free-kick and a goal from Lafata.

Photograph 11 : 8.34pm.

A photograph of the action inside the Chelsea penalty area from a Sparta corner. The ball is just about to be headed clear by Gary Cahill. Despite Chelsea dominating possession during the first-half, Sparta were clearly not just sitting back. The tie was now level and a Sparta away goal would put them at a huge advantage.

Photograph 12 : 8.44pm.

The Prague ‘keeper Vaclik, who had a poor first game, is photographed catching the ball from a Juan Mata corner. Just before the break, Fernando Torres headed over. It clearly was not going to be his night.

Photograph 13 : 9.19pm.

A photograph of the photographers. Dressed in Sparta burgundy, they are poised with their long lenses to capture that elusive Chelsea equaliser at the north end of the stadium. The second-half had begun with Oscar, now showing what a well-rounded and accomplished midfielder looks like – strong in the tackle, good balance, tremendous close skill, great vision – dancing through the Sparta defence with a tremendous run. His ball found Ramires whose shot on goal was deflected onto a post. A lovely turn from Torres was not matched by the finish. He found himself one on one with the ‘keeper but his attempted flick over – with all of ready to celebrate – was amazingly swatted away by Vaclik.

Photograph 14 : 9.21pm.

Push and shove inside the Sparta penalty area. Juan Mata’s cross is out of shot, but players of both teams are moving in every direction possible to elude each other. John Terry is seen pulling a sleeve. One defender is facing away from the ball, creating a block for Mikel. I really wonder why the much-lampooned goal-line officials bother showing up; when have they ever spotted any of these illegal activities during a match? As the second-half developed, the Chelsea fans – already out-shouted by the away fans – began getting more abusive. On the hour, there was a loud shout of “Jose Mourinho” from the Matthew Harding Lower.

Photopraph 15 : 9.23pm.

The ball is headed away by a Prague defender, with Ryan Bertrand challenging. I commented to Alan that Ryan needed a good game; if I’m honest he hasn’t developed particularly well since his surprising involvement in the game in Munich. Ah, Munich. Just the word sends me dizzy.

Photograph 16 : 9.35pm.

John Terry in attack, heading back across goal from another Mata corner. By now, we had wasted many free-kicks in and around the box and Sparta had threatened on a few forays up field. Benitez replaced Oscar – our best player in my book – with Eden Hazard. The dice were being thrown.

Photograph 17 : 9.35pm.

A photo of the Prague fans in the Shed Lower raising their scarves above their head. With their constant chants of “Sparta! Sparta! Sparta!” sounding similar to “Barca! Barca! Barca!” and their yellow and red of Catalonia plus the burgundy and blue of Barcelona, I wondered if there might be an Iniesta-like strike to send us packing. An away goal now and it would be Czech, mate.

Photograph 18 : 9.35pm.

Eden Hazard, in extreme close-up, down below me, shaping to zip a free-kick goal wards. Our domination continued but Torres’ poor night was summed up when a Ramires effort hit him in the chest.

Photograph 19 : 9.50pm.

Juan Mata caught taking yet another free-kick. One after another they came. The frustration rose with every missed opportunity. Ramires wide. A Hazard free-kick was parried by Vaclik. Ramires kicked and missed.

Photograph 20 : 9.53pm.

Bodies in the box. Victor Moses is photographed attempting to latch onto a loose ball. The Prague defenders heads clear. By this stage, we had heard that Ajax was losing 1-0. My flight to Amsterdam was looking in jeopardy. A Gary Cahill block stopped a crucial Sparta goal.

Photograph 21 : 9.55pm.

The captain John Terry is photographed booting the ball goal wards. He had already come close with an impudent flick from close in. At the other end, a Sparta Prague break had caused me to look away – I hardly ever do that – but an effort from Kadlec was zipped wide. That chance really should have sealed the tie. Apilicueta shot high from an angle. Penalties were looming large.

Photograph 22 : 9.58pm.

Eden Hazard is engulfed by ecstatic Chelsea players down below me. In extra-time, the substitute had cut inside a defender, using that lovely low centre of gravity body swerve and worked the ball onto his left foot. A thunderbolt flew past the redoubtable Vaclik and, although I at first thought that Hazard’s thunderstrike had rippled the side-netting, the roar from the Stamford Bridge crowd told me otherwise. I continued snapping the players’ celebrations below.

Photograph 23 : 9.58pm.

A close-up of Torres, Ramires, Mikel, Moses, Hazard and Bertrand. Beside me Alan was shouting for joy – and relief. Phew. It was virtually the last kick of the game. We were through. Phew again.

Photgrapho 24 : 10.01pm.

A photograph of the Sparta Prague team, lined-up, arms around each other, basking in the warm applause of the colourful three-thousand away fans. Soon after, the entire away end was bouncing in joyous abandon. This had clearly been an enjoyable night for them in London. Their players’ performance had been very brave; they almost pulled off the unexpected. The Sparta supporters’ performance was even better. I take my hat off to them.

The 24 Photographs –

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