Tales From Another European Semi-Final

Chelsea vs. Basel : 2 May 2013.

There was a nice, cool vibe leading up to our Europa League semi-final second leg against Basel. For the first time in my spectating life, Chelsea had already done the hardest part by winning the first leg away from home. On all other occasions, things have been a little trickier.

A quick resume of previous semi-final encounters in which we played away first?

Yes, why not.

1994-1995 Real Zaragoza – lost
1997-1998 Vicenza – lost
1998-1999 Real Mallorca – lost
2003-2004 A.S. Monaco – lost
2007-2008 Liverpool – drew
2008-2009 Barcelona – drew

So, this was new ground for me. Uncharted territory, if you will. For many of our hundreds, thousands, millions of new fans, there has only been life at the top table as a Chelsea fan; participation in the Champions League has been second nature for us over the previous ten successive seasons bringing a massive increase in our global recognition. However, for many years, even competing in any type of European football was seen as a holy grail. From an infamous defeat to Atvidaberg in the ECWC in 1971, we waited patiently for the next European night. Thankfully, it finally came against Viktoria Zizkov in 1994, but only after a wait of twenty-three long years.

Put it this way. I was twenty-nine years of age before I saw us play in any UEFA match.

Oh boy.

So, naturally, there has been a certain amount of teeth-grinding by myself at some of the comments aired by some Chelsea fans recently about the trivial nature of the much-maligned Europa League. However, this has been a personal voyage for me since we were knocked out of this season’s Champions League campaign by Shakhtar in December. On that night, when we beat Nordsjaelland but Shakhtar still went through, I was initially upbeat about our participation in the Europa League. Since then, my feelings have waivered a little, but as the final in Amsterdam has loomed nearer and nearer, thoughts have been more positive again. The extra round of games in this competition – the dreaded “Round of Thirty-Two” (which sounds like the biggest round of beers ever) – stretched out this competition further, but after the defeats of Sparta Prague, Steaua Bucharest and Rubin Kazan, only one game remained.

A few weeks ago, I booked up flights from Bristol to Schipol in readiness of Chelsea reaching the final in Amsterdam but took out an “insurance bet” on Basel beating us to minimise my loss if we didn’t make it. In fact, there were so many Chelsea fans betting on Basel to win the tie, I’m surprised that the police weren’t suspicious of illegal betting practices.

The first-leg went our way – we were back on the main ITV channel, Luiz scored a cracker, things were looking good – and so there was a certain amount of relaxation going in to the return leg.

I set off for London town just after 4pm and the voices of Chelsea fans Paul Weller and then David Gahan helped prolong the air of relaxation as I ate up the miles heading east.

I reached The Goose at 6.45pm. Outside in the beer garden, there were friends mingling.

I can imagine Paul Weller writing about the scene which greeted me.

“A police car and a screaming siren.
Pneumatic drill, Napoli Frank’s laughter.
Lord Parky wailing, a stray dog howling.
The clink of glasses and the joy of drinking.
That’s entertainment, that’s entertainment.
A smash of glass, the sunlight fading.
A team photo, the excitement rising.
The boys together, polo shirts and trainers.
The fear of defeat and a kick in the balls.
I say that’s entertainment, that’s entertainment.”

Just time for one pint; my trusted Peroni went down well, too well, but I didn’t fancy risking another one. There was a nice mixture of friends old and new. Orlin from San Francisco, with his fellow Bulgarian Evo – living in Ealing now – was rubbing shoulders with Napoli Frank and Dartford Dave. The Kaminskis from Pittsburgh were also present. These six would be sitting – no, standing of course – in the first row of The Shed Lower.

“I’ll be sure to take of photo of you all.”

Keith, from New Jersey, was also in the beer garden. He was with his friend Fernanda who has been living in England for nine months. This would be her first ever Chelsea game, her first ever football match. With a name like Fernanda, I wondered who her favourite might be.

The walk down to Stamford Bridge was lovely. There was nothing but a clear blue sky overhead. The sun hit the stone of the Hammersmith & Fulham Town Hall and gave it a golden sandy hue. There was noise and colour all around me. I turned to my left and again the sun had highlighted the towering West Stand to perfection. With massive banners from last season’s twin triumphs adorning its yellow stoned walls, it, looked a picture. I’m sure I saw the Peter Osgood statue blink in the sunlight.

Alexander : “Any spare ticket, please…come on Chelsea!”

Sergei : “I want go home Russia. I miss my Babushka.”

Alexander : “We Chelsea now.”

Sergei : “Oh boyski.”

On the wait to ascend the steps leading up to the MHU turnstiles, I found myself alongside Tim Rolls and Rick Glanvil. There was talk of Frank Lampard. Rick seized the moment and asked a trivia question.

“So, Frank has scored 201 goals for Chelsea. How many has he scored against our last four league opponents in the league this year…United, Spurs, Villa and Everton.”

The answer?

A staggering 36.

Amazing.

I made my way up the stairs…always to the left, one of my match-day superstitions, then out into the seats. A near full house, but Basel didn’t completely fill up their 3,000 spots. I can’t grumble though; I didn’t travel to Basel for the first game. In fact, only around 1,000 Chelsea did.

So – team news.

Ryan in for Ash. Brana alongside Cahill. Luiz pushed up alongside Fat Frank. Ramires out right. Moses out left. Torres in for the cup-tied Ba.

I had difficulty in remembering any of the Basel team from the first leg; this was not helped by seven of their team having surnames which began with the letter S.

Shostakovich, Solzenitzen, Socrates, Sinatra, Schumacher, Spielberg and Strauss.

Some team.

In the first chance of the game, Basel – playing in white – almost got off to a dream start when Stella – sorry, Strella – shot wide. At the other end, Lampard reacted quickly but hit the upright. On 17 minutes, Fernano Torres hit a bobbler, but it was saved by the goalkeeper. On 25 minutes, that man Stella – sorry, Strella – raced into the box and beautifully met a perfect cross on the volley. It was a magnificent strike and it whizzed past Cech’s far post. Their big number nine was looking a handful for Cahill…Ivanoviv…Luiz…whoever was closest.

Away in the opposite corner, the Basel fans were in good voice. Elsewhere, the Chelsea faithful were sporadic inn their support. This clearly didn’t feel like one of “those” magical European nights. I joked with Alan that next Wednesday’s encounter with Tottenham was more likely to be akin to a Champions League semi-final than a run-of-the-mill league game.

Gary Cahill made a quite magnificent tackle as Basel again threatened. At The Shed End, Ramires shot at the goalkeeper from only six yards out after good work from Moses down the left. This wasn’t a great Chelsea performance. There was a disjointed feel to our play and we missed the intelligence of Juan Mata. I lost count of the number of crosses which ended up in acres of space at the far post, away from any Chelsea players. The six visitors in the front row of The Shed would have had good sightings of all this. Our choice of ball in the final third was poor. Basel broke though again, only for Petr Cech to make a fantastic save from Sinatra – sorry, Salah.

Just before the break, Fernando Torres did ever so well to come inside from his inside-left position, only to hit a shot high and wide.

Oh boy.

Our profligacy would cost us. Right on the very stroke of half-time, Socrates – sorry, Stocker – played in Sinatra – sorry, Salah – who stroked the ball past a stranded Cech. We had been caught sleeping. The Basel fans bounced in unison; a very fine sight. To be honest, Basel had probably edged it in the first-half. At the break, the scoreboard told the story of the game thus far –

Chelsea – 8 shots
Basel – 10 shots

“Never mind, Al. I’m sure that the Chelsea fans will decide to stand all of the way through the second half and roar the team on.”

“Yeah, in a parallel universe, mate, millions of light years away.”

“It’s a bit like Vicenza in 1998, mate. 1-0 down, we need to bounce back.”

Ah, Vicenza, April 16th 1998. It was one of the greatest nights that I have enjoyed as a Chelsea supporter. We had lost the away leg on a rainy night in northern Italy 1-0. In the return game – with Chelsea deciding to play in all yellow – we went a further goal down on the night. It was looking awfully bleak. Then, miraculously, a goal from Gus Poyet gave us hope before half-time. In the second-half, with the 34,000 capacity crowd roaring us on (comparable to Bruges 1995), a fantastic cross from Vialli was headed home by Zola and then Mark Hughes turned and volleyed in a low shot to send as absolutely delirious.

It truly was heart-stopping stuff.

Those were the days…

Colin Pates was Neil Barnett’s guest at half-time. He was on the pitch with his two sons. Neil started to say a few words about our much-loved former captain.

“When Colin retired from football…”

(He should have said…”he played for Arsenal”)

…”he became sports master at Whitgift School. And who was his star centre-forward? Victor Moses.”

I had read about Victor Moses’ life story during the summer…how he had witnessed both of his parents being killed in Nigeria, then came to England as an asylum-seeker, settling in South London with relatives, then playing football with Patesy at Whitgift.

It is some story.

I bet Colin is so proud.

The second-half began and I was pragmatic. I said to Alan ; “we always play better in the second-half at home.”

I was to be proved right.

After 49 minutes, Eden Hazard went on a fantastic run deep into the heart of the Swiss defence. The ball found Frank Lampard who blasted towards the goal. The Basel custodian saved, but couldn’t gather the ball. The on-rushing Torres was able to pounce and fired the ball high into the net. Parity on the night was restored, but we were ahead on aggregate.

It was Fernando Torres’ twentieth goal of the season.

Only three minutes had passed when Victor Moses was able to follow up his own shot after it was initially saved to make it 2-0 on the night and 4-2 on aggregate. There is nothing like two quick goals to stir the emotions; such was the case on this night in SW6. The crowd were now back in this game and the songs rang out.

“We know what we are. We know what we are. Champions of Europe. We know what we are.”

The most memorable piece of skill on the night caught us all unawares. Frank Lampard pushed the ball on to David Luiz. Although he was some thirty yards out, he looked up and decided to unleash a dipping, curling masterpiece. I followed its trajectory as it flew goalwards. As the net rippled, the stadium erupted. It was another Luiz masterstroke.

“Getinyoufcukingbeauty.”

I pulled my camera up to my head and quickly shot a succession of photographs of the ecstatic Luiz as he ran towards us in the north-west corner.

Eyes bulging.

Hair flying.

Heart racing.

Screaming.

And that was just me.

Click, click, click, click, click, click, click.

We were now 5-2 up and surely Amsterdam-bound.

Just after Luiz’ stunner, Frei unleashed an incredible shot which rattled against Cech’s bar and drew applause from those around me in the MHU. Cech saved again, then Hazard’s delicate lob caused concern for Basel. It was, in all honesty, a fine game.

The Basel fans were in good voice, still. Although they are based in the German-speaking section of Switzerland, the antics of their fans was more akin to the Italian ultras. They bounced, they sang, they held their scarves aloft. They then had a lovely dig at us, singing in perfect English –

“Sing when you’re winning. You only sing when you’re winning.”

We chuckled at that. Top marks.

With the game now irretrievably lost, the Swiss fans had one last treat in store for us. They unfurled a large blue and red striped banner – almost Barcelona-esque – and then lit several pink and blue flares. It was a magnificent sight. Their fans were hidden among the billowing smoke; something that I always think looks wonderful.

Like something from another world.

The Chelsea faithful had a response, though.

Seeing the seven or eight bright candle-like flares burning bright, the MHL bellowed –

“Happy birthday to you.
Happy birthday to you.
Happy birthday dear Basel.
Happy birthday to you.”

In the last few minutes, Nathan Ake made his home debut. I had a little chuckle to myself; my nickname for many years among school friends was Acky.

At last, Acky plays for Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.

With the game won, several left the stadium before the end of the game. It wasn’t like this in the Champions League.

At the final whistle, I momentarily punched the air, but – I can’t fool myself – I knew that it wasn’t the same. However, we had deserved the win on the back of our second-half show and I wasn’t complaining. Of course, we are so spoiled these days. Coming right after the biggest night in our history, there is no doubt that this cup run has felt a little underwhelming. And yet, we all know that if we had gone even five years without silverware, we would be ecstatic about reaching a major final.

Ask Arsenal.

“One Step Beyond” boomed out and I smiled. We had another European final – only our fifth in 108 years – to celebrate.

Good times.

“Amsterdam, Amsterdam, We Are Coming.”

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