Chelsea vs. Basel : 18 September 2013.
A full moon shone brightly from the wedge of night sky between the silvery steel of the East stand roof and the beige brickwork of the hotel abutting the Shed End. Here was evidence enough that a full lunar month had passed since our last home game at Stamford Bridge, a narrow 2-1 victory over a resolute Aston Villa side, when I watched as the same full moon traced a slow curve into the August night. In some ways a lot had happened since then; a failed courtship of Wayne Rooney, the purchases of Eto’o and Willian, a dour draw at Old Trafford, a spirited but ultimately disappointing loss in Prague and a weak defeat at Everton. In other ways, not much at all had taken place; a period of four long weeks but only three games, stultifying inactivity, lots of emptiness and all of us waiting for the real football to recommence.
However, as I took my seat alongside Tom, with barely ten minutes to wait until our Champions League campaign of 2013-2014 began, my lack of excitement concerned me. In fact, this sense of ambivalence was seemingly shared by many. There just didn’t seem to be that air of anticipation that usually accompanies our first home game in the Champions League group phase each autumn. It was surely there when we played Milan in 1999 and it was also in evidence when we hosted Juventus last season. You would think that the return of Jose Mourinho, the most sought-after manager in world football, might add a crackle of electricity to the clear September night.
I didn’t feel it. From the quietness in the stands, neither did thousands more.
Alan soon joined us and we spoke briefly about the journey back from Everton. I was lucky, reaching home at just before midnight. Alan wasn’t so blessed; he had made it home, via a night bus full of clubbers, ravers and nutters from Piccadilly Circus, at 2.45am. We spoke with disdain of the over-reaction to our defeat by some supporters within the club. As the teams entered the pitch – Chelsea in blue shirts, Basel in blue tracksuit tops – we hoped for a better result in our match against the returning Basel side. It was a strange quirk of fate that the Swiss team were the last European visitors to Stamford Bridge in early May. Unlike that Europa League semi-final, I was dismayed to see that they were being cheered on by a paltry away allocation – maybe only 400 strong – in this, the much more prestigious tournament.
I had briefly heard Jose Mourinho, on breakfast TV that morning as I rushed between kitchen and bathroom, utter something about his Chelsea players being like eggs. I didn’t capture the whole quote and I was simply too busy with work (there – that’s the reason for my lack of focus on the evening’s match, I knew there was a reason), to delve deeper, but it certainly made me think back to a quote from 2007, just before his last match as Chelsea manager of his first reign.
On 18 September – exactly six years ago – we drew 1-1 with Rosenborg in another group phase home opener. In the build-up to the match, Jose provided a typically candid sound-bite for the gentlemen of the press. There had been a lengthy period of unrest between Roman Abramovich and the increasingly frustrated Mourinho; the clear message from his quote about omelettes and eggs –“you buy class A eggs in Waitrose, you make a great omelette” – was that he had been tied to using sub-standard players.
Twenty four hours later – or was it forty eight? – Jose was gone. Seven years later, an admittedly much more relaxed and jocular Mourinho was again using wordplay with the press. My fleeting glance of a smiling Jose on TV, giggling like a schoolboy, gave me hope that the frustrations of Goodison Park would be forgotten and that his evident trust in his new young players would make us smile too.
The match began. I was heartily thankful that, unlike that fateful Rosenborg game in 2007, we had again sold out Stamford Bridge. It was a so pleasing to see; another 40,000 gate. This might surprise some newer Chelsea supporters, but the gate for Rosenburg was a lowly 24,973. The club had a tough wake-up call that night; they had charged the supporters a whopping £45 – if memory serves – for the visit of the team from Norway. Obviously, supporters voted with their wallets on that night. In all subsequent seasons of CL football, match tickets for the group phase games have been held at the £30/£35 mark, which is considerably less than for standard league games.
It was one of the toughest few days; lots of derision from other teams’ supporters about our inability to fill Stamford Bridge. Then, the night of the long knives. Mourinho out and Grant in. Oh boy.
As the early exchanges took place on the pitch, against a sad backdrop of near quiet in the stands, Alan and I chatted about our plans for the trip to Bucharest; Alan ventured to the Romanian capital last season, this will be my first visit. The game was almost inconsequential; I watched, but wasn’t concentrating.
I spotted a few familiar names from May…Streller – mmm, I remember him. Just as Chelsea had Hollins, Houseman, Hutchinson, Hinton, Harris and Hudson in the ‘seventies, Basel’s team included Streller, Sommer, Schar, Stocker, Sio, Safari and Salah.
Chelsea began the stronger team, with Basel content to sit back and soak up the pressure. However, our possession was rarely converted into goal-scoring chances and the crowd were given little to cheer. And cheer, they certainly didn’t. I couldn’t help but think back to previous European nights in the mid ‘nineties when we were fresh-faced and more excitable about the prospect of European football – pick a game, any game…Zizkov, Vienna, Bratislava, Tromso. I’m sure that on those nights, we didn’t wait for a goal to roar the team on.
As the half continued, Basel grew in confidence and occasionally made purposeful forays into our half. With the first-half coming to a close, the stadium was almost silent.
“I wish that bloody owl in Brompton Cemetery would stop hooting.”
This wasn’t great football. It wasn’t even good. It was slow. The players were running in quicksand. There was little flair. Willian was struggling to make an impression. In fact, the midfield in general were poor. Nobody wanted to take ownership of the ball. Nobody wanted to make things happen.
I looked over towards Gary, sitting a few seats away and he simply said “awful.”
Just before half-time, David Luiz played the ball towards Frank Lampard who in turn touched the ball to his right where Oscar was waiting. The young Brazilian made room and drilled the ball in at the far post.
1-0 to Chelsea, “THTCAUN/COMLD” in a Germanic accent, but we hardly deserved the lead.
The second-half began and there was a slight change. The game opened up a little and we created a few chances. I caught Oscar on film wriggling away from markers before curling a wicked shot which bounced off the bar. He repeated this soon after, and then set up Hazard, who infuriatingly shot wildly over. Oscar was our best player by a mile and was rewarded with the first airing of his own song…the highly unoriginal “Oscar, Oscar, Oscar, Oscar.”
Although we were creating – with Willian running at his full-back and getting more involved – Basel were seemingly given full reign to cut through our midfield at will. It seemed to me that the basic premise of the midfielder that I grew up watching in the ‘eighties – Johnny B, Mickey Thomas, Nigel Spackman – was to physically intimidate an opponent. The vernacular of the day was simply “to put your foot in.”
To tackle. To win the ball. To compete.
These days, midfielders – perhaps due the changing of the laws of the game which has made physical contact easily punishable – are simply told to close down space and press. Well, on this particular night, we certainly weren’t tackling and we hardly did any pressing either. I commented to Alan –
“I often feel that when the crowd are not involved, it only takes a couple of strong tackles to galvanise the supporters into roaring the team on.”
That is one of my strongest memories of football in pre-Premier League England.
“Bollocks to flair, I’ll cheer a hard 50/50 tackle like there’s no tomorrow.”
Ironically, as Willian continued to get involved, Jose Mourinho chose to substitute him. He was given a nice reception, but we awarded his replacement Juan Mata an even bigger cheer. A nice ball from Lamps was played behind the Basel defensive line for Eto’o, but the goalkeeper raced off his line to gather. However, Basel had been threatening for a few minutes and their positive play was rewarded. A quick interchange of passes, with the ball being moved around intelligently, found Salah, who dispatched the ball in to the same corner of the Shed End goal as Oscar in the first-half.
1-1. No complaints.
This drew immediate change from Jose. The largely quiet van Ginkel and the subdued Lampard were replaced by Demba Ba and Jon Obi Mikel. Ba played in the middle, while Eto’o was forced to toil out on the left wing. He looked quite disconsolate and offered little for the remainder of the game. Our play deteriorated further. Eden Hazard, on his day our most exciting talent, drew the ire of the increasingly agitated crowd by holding on to the ball for far too long. As Basel cut through our midfield, in which Mata looked lost, Mikel at least gave a little solidity to the team with several strong tackles.
“That’s more like it son.”
With ten minutes remaining, Basel were awarded a corner. The ball was whipped in at head height – a great delivery in fact – and that man Streller rose to arrow the ball in with a great header. Although I was over one hundred yards away, and my view was obviously far from perfect, his leap seemed to go unchallenged.
A couple of half-chances amounted to nothing.
We had lost only our sixth game at home in almost one hundred European matches.
Manchester United 2011.
I don’t think anyone on the walk out of the stadium could believe that they had witnessed such a poor Chelsea performance. One fan was heard to say “that’s the worst I’ve ever seen.” It certainly bore no likeness to the spirited and dominant Mourinho teams from 2004 to 2007. It is difficult to write any words of comfort, such was our disjointed and meekly-contested performance. I can only trust that the manager addresses the deficiencies in his typically astute manner and fires us up for Fulham at home on Saturday. I soon met up with Parky along the Fulham Road and the mood was sombre. The next game in the competition – yes, that game in Bucharest – will be huge. At least it makes that trip all the more exciting. In all honesty, it would be “typical Chelsea” for us to go to that particular cauldron – Alan has promised me great things – and chisel out a tough away win. I can’t wait for that trip. I already have a few ideas about places to visit. I’m sure Bucharest will be a great city.
Will I have a lovely time in Romania?
As sure as eggs is eggs.