Tales From 05 Versus 04

Chelsea vs. Schalke 04 : 6 November 2013.

I was inside Stamford Bridge by 7.30pm and my usual routine was followed; as soon as I had a chance to glimpse the upper echelons of the East Stand through the gap of Gate 9 of the Matthew Harding Upper, I did so. Here would be a clue to see if there would be yet another full-house (or as near as damn it) at HQ. My fellow supporters did not disappoint; the very back rows were filling up nicely. Should we ever hit sub-standard attendances – Southampton last season, 38,000 – then those very back rows tend not to be used.

I needn’t have worried. Another 41,000 at Stamford Bridge. Excellent.

It was a surprisingly mild night in London. I soon dispensed of my chunky jacket for a few moments and stood, refreshed, in just my shirtsleeves.

Away in the south-east corner stood three thousand travelling Germans; it was soon evident that they would provide just as much entertainment during the following two hours as the millionaire sportsmen scurrying around on the perfect Stamford Bridge turf below. Champions League nights at Chelsea, especially those in the group phase of autumn, tend to be odd affairs. Our support is augmented by tourists and sightseers and the atmosphere often suffers. These are big nights for the corporate dollar too, of course. The club’s clamour for such a clientele was brought home to me recently when I – for once – bothered to read a Chelsea magazine from cover-to-cover. There were advertisements for corporate hospitality everywhere. It appeared that every spare square yard of free space at Stamford Bridge has now been designated a pre-match venue for a variety of dining options, with supporters – sorry, clients – being then escorted up towards the rarefied atmosphere of the West Upper.

“Spend your £150, buffet lunch, Chelsea gift, ex-player appearance, open bar, off you trot to the West Upper, thanks for the money.”

It is no wonder that vast swathes of Stamford Bridge remain ghostly quiet on many match days.

Alan and Tom, the two stalwarts were alongside me.

Following on from our trip to Tyneside at the weekend, Alan and I spoke in Geordie accents for a large slice of the evening. It was no surprise. We both love an accent.

Wor Ally : “How was the toon Sat’dy neet, but?”

Wor Chrissy : “Ah diven’t knaa. It’s al a bit of a blur, like.”

As the teams entered the stadium, the Chelsea in the Matthew Harding draped a large new flag over the balcony wall at the east end of the stand. It was a clear and simple, stunningly effective, blue flag containing a pristine white image of the sexiest cup of them all, the European Cup. Good work. I hope it appears every game. In the away section, an equally impressive sight; three thousand Germans rhythmically bouncing, as one, in unison, both tiers together. I will be blunt and honest here; it was probably the greatest show I had ever seen performed by an away contingent at Stamford Bridge. It was mesmeric and tantalising to see so many bodies bouncing in time. Linear ripples of movement, bounce, bounce, bounce. Fantastic.

There is no doubt that Schalke 04 are one of the largest German clubs in 2013, but for many years they existed under my radar. I have a distinct feeling that they played second tier football for a few years during my football youth and certainly never rivalled the more well-known teams such as Bayern Munich, SV Hamburg, 1FC Koln, Borrusia Moenchengladbach and the like. It came as some surprise to me, in around 1990, for me to read of the size of their support. They appeared to be an authentic sleeping giant. And yet their home town – city – of Gelsenkirchen was not famous at all; possibly unheard of by people outside Germany and outside football. They appeared to be an enigma, cossetted away in the heart of the Ruhr, unknown and yet with an historic past.

I remembered that their old stadium was used at the 1974 World Cup – its vast terrace was similar to that of the Olympic Stadium in Munich – but for years, Schalke 04 continued their existence in the footballing shadows.

Chelsea played a game against Besiktas at Schalke’s new stadium in the 2003-2004 CL campaign and then met Schalke for the first time in the 2007-2008 group phase. A few friends and I travelled over to Germany for the away leg. We flew into Koln/Bonn airport and stayed two nights in the city of Koln. A heavy night of drinking the local kolsch beer on the first evening was followed by a more subdued match day. We took the local train up to Gelsenkirchen, giving me the first real taste of the Ruhr. Despite having travelled extensively in Germany in my twenties, I had skirted this vast industrial power zone, instead preferring Hamburg, Munich and other more touristy locales. In truth, Gelsenkirchen was bleak. Its city centre was astonishingly small. At the time, I searched for an English equivalent.

Massive club, once successful, hidden away in a small town within a larger metropolitan area.

I know.

Wolverhampton Wanderers.

That was as good a fit as I could come up with.

Just as only football fans have heard of Gelsenkirchen, surely only football fans from elsewhere in the world have heard of Wolverhampton?

On the night, I was impressed with the two-tiered, roofed Arena Auf Schalke – the Veltins Arena – but the game was poor, ending scoreless.

Gelsenkirchen 2007 ranks very poorly in my list of favourite European aways.

The game began and Schalke – in dark jade shirts – began on the front foot. In their first attack, Cesar Azpilicueta – strangely preferred at left-back in place of Ashley Cole – was caught way out of position in the middle of the field. Alan and I groaned, but thankfully Julian Draxler drilled a low shot wide of Petr Cech’s far post. Within a few moments, Szalai produced an almost carbon-copy finish.

We were all over the place. Our play was loose and we lacked structure.

Schalke 04 were causing Chelsea 05 to play at sixes and sevens.

Another few minutes and another Schalke effort; the away team had enjoyed a great start and had peppered our goal with three good efforts in the opening eight minutes. In the far corner, the singing from the away fans was constant. There were capos with loudspeakers, rhythmic clapping, scarves being held aloft and then twirled. They were in fine form.

Chelsea started to get a foothold.

For a few moments it was the Schalke and Schurrle show; our German international had a free-kick well saved by Hildebrand and then followed up with a fine strike on goal.

For once, the Chelsea fans began to rise to the challenge offered by the noisy Germans. The Matthew Harding Lower led the singing and for a few fleeting moments the stadium resembled a football stadium.

Our play had been rather slow, relying on the raiding Ivanovic down the right. Very often the intricate triangles involving Oscar, Ramires and Willian only resulted in the ball being played back, relentlessly, through the back four. We lacked vitality. I longed for an early ball for Samuel Eto’o to run on to. For the most part, all of the play was in front of Schalke.

However, on the half hour, calamity for our visitors.

Hildebrand delayed and delayed his clearance up field. The otherwise quiet Eto’o seized his chance and rushed in to block. In the blink of an eye-lid, the ball had ricocheted off his leg and had rolled beautifully into the empty Shed End goal.

We could hardly believe our eyes.

After the Hart faux-pas against Manchester City and the Eto’o touch against Cardiff City, the Shed End were treated to another “what happened next?” moment. There was a mixture of glee and relief in the Chelsea ranks. We had begun poorly and had hardly warranted a 1-0 lead.

Alan and I cleared our throats.

“Zey vill ‘ave to come at us now.”

“Wir kommen mein klein diamonds.”

The rest of the first-half was devoid of incident, apart from a bizarre moment when a Chelsea attack was called back by the referee because a Schalke player’s boot had come off.

Alan and I were dumbfounded.

Modern football. Pah.

Chris : “Fackin’ell…Bert Trautman played on with a broken neck.”

Alan : “Ref! Ref! Stop the play! My sock has fallen down.”

Paolo Ferriera made a welcome return to the Stamford Bridge pitch as he slowly walked with Neil Barnett. I had last seen him, tearful, after his last ever game in New York in May. It was lovely to see him again.

In the first few minutes of the second-half, probably the best moment of football thus far; a superb spin and shot from Draxler inside our box and it looked like certain equaliser. To our pleasure, Petr Cech threw himself to his right and touched the low shot past the post for a corner.

Thibaut who?

Soon after, a fantastic Chelsea counter-attack (we seem to specialise in these attacking the MH in the second-half of games, don’t we?) and we added to our lead. Willian fed in Eto’o whose run was near perfect. The veteran goal scorer calmly struck the ball past the hapless Schalke ‘keeper with the minimum of fuss and raced over to the far corner to milk the applause of the home support.

I was unconvinced about the signing of Samuel Eto’o over the summer, but if he continues to ply his trade as effectively as that over the next six months, I will be very contented.

With the game seemingly safe, the Chelsea support quietened. Even the ball-achingly dull and tedious “Ten German Bombers” soon faded after a minute. The Schalke fans, meanwhile, kept going.

I remember when our support was like that.

The game appeared to be won. We seemed more than content to pass, pass, pass our way to three more points. Mourinho rung the changes, bringing on Demba Ba, Kevin de Bruyne  and Frank Lampard.

The midfield, where Mikel had put in a fine and steady performance, was re-jigged.

Demba Ba shot meekly soon after entering the field, but then made amends on 82 minutes. Frank Lampard lobbed the ball towards Ba – he looked offside to me, and a few others – and he calmly despatched the ball into the far corner.

3-0.

As the game drifted on, the Schalke fans still sang.

At the final whistle, I couldn’t help but feel a slightest twinge of sympathy for the Germans. Over the two games, they had certainly not deserved to be at the end of a 0-6 gubbing. I think that they had missed a cutting edge. Their progress in this year’s competition is not known. At least ours seems more likely.

On the walk back to the car, I was surprisingly underwhelmed. I was obviously happy that Chelsea had triumphed on the night and were now leading the group after that calamitous defeat versus Basel. However, a win against a bland and anonymous team – which, to my eyes, Schalke still were – just left me a bit cold and unfulfilled. I know that UEFA has served up these six group phase games for our gratification and pleasure, but maybe the thrill is starting to wane a little. There certainly isn’t that edge which is present during the knockout games and the muted atmosphere – again – at a Chelsea CL game provides extra evidence of the “hey-ho” nature of these encounters.

Back at the car, Parky’s response summed it up succinctly.

“All a bit boring wasn’t it really?”

On Saturday, it’s back to the cut and thrust of the league campaign.

Steve Clarke. Nicolas Anelka. Bouncy Bouncy. Boing Boing.

See you all there.

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