Tales From The Group Phase

Chelsea vs. Steaua Bucharest : 11 December 2013.

When the European Cup became the Champions League over twenty years ago, Chelsea Football Club looked on from afar. Until that point, European football was a rare treat. However, within the football fan community, there was immediate disdain of the participation within it of league runners-up. The “Champions League” suddenly became a misnomer. Then, the cut-throat knock-out nature of the old competition was thrown away in favour of a mini-league format. Football fans, showing considerable unity throughout the continent of Europe, were again dismayed. Most saw  its formation as UEFA appeasing the fat cats at the top table, virtually guaranteeing them all top level competition on an annual basis and staving off threats of a breakaway pan-European league. Since those days, Chelsea’s participation within the competition has been a regular event. This would be our eleventh season in a row. For us supporters, the real advantage of the Champions League group phase, played under lights in various degrees of midweek darkness every autumn, has been to pick and choose which of the three away games we are able to attend. Very often, the home games – especially on match day five or six – offer little distraction.

The Chelsea vs. Steaua Bucharest game, in itself our fourth match-up with the Romanians in nine months, was therefore hardly filling me with enthusiasm during the day. In fact, if truth be known, as the day progressed, I kept questioning myself as to why I was bothering to attend. Our passage into the last sixteen was already assured, there would be a tiring drive into London, probably a poor atmosphere, little drinking time before the game and a late finish in the small hours of Thursday morning.

I came to the conclusion that the main reason, on a personal level, was for me to witness – let’s hope – the immediate and entertaining upturn in our play since the Stoke City defeat on Saturday. I simply hoped for goals, attacking football and a reaffirmation of our collective love of Jose Mourinho.

A hope for better things.

A just reward for my Wednesday evening sortie into town.

It reminded of the days of following the club in the era, much doted upon by Chelsea supporters of a certain vintage, of “the drought” when we didn’t expect entertaining football at Stamford Bridge, or even a win, but we just attended games out of blind devotion and the hope, however small, that our patience would be rewarded with an entertainment-ridden goal fest.

Due to patchy fog in Wiltshire and traffic congestion in London, the drive to Chelsea took three full hours. Parky and I jostled into the boozer just after 7pm. There was a quick “hello goodbye” and then I was off with Alan to The Bridge. There was time to mull over a few talking points.

Within parts of the Chelsea fan base, there had been surprising reactions to the defeat at the Britannia Stadium. There was the call to move Petr Cech on and recall Thibaut Courtois. I found this to be rather harsh. At the Stoke game, he certainly erred for the first goal, but could hardly be held responsible for the others.  There was also a desire among some fans for Mourinho to recall David Luiz; his errant behaviour, much-frowned-upon and castigated by many of those same fans, forgotten. There was even frustration with Mourinho himself.

My thoughts?

Chill.

We all know that this team, this squad even, is changing.

I’d rather have Jose in charge than anyone else.

Anyone.

That is not to say we should bow down and follow blindly. There is always room for opinion and debate. Even I have tired of Mourinho’s snipes at our strike force’s lack of goals. However, as always, there is a thin line between quiet and constructive criticism as opposed to loud and knee-jerk negativism.

Regarding the lack of goals from Fernando, Demba and Samuel, Alan wisely noted –

“We can’t win. We should be happy the goals are being spread out among the team. If only Torres or Eto’o was scoring, people would be bemoaning the lack of firepower from elsewhere.”

Football fans are never happy.

We were inside Stamford Bridge as early as 7.25pm and my immediate concern was the vast amount of blue seats clearly visible. By 7.45pm, my fears had subsided. It was yet another near full house for a Champions League night. Our support, often derided, should again be applauded. Steaua brought a full 3,000 in March; tonight it was around 2,000. As the teams entered the pitch, the away end was lit with the many lights from the travelling Romanians’ mobile phones. There were obviously Steaua fans in the East Upper too; lights there also.

Mark Schwarzer was in goal, Ashley Cole was at left-back, David Luiz was partnering JT,  Frank was paired with Mikel in the anchor roles, Willian and Oscar recalled alongside Hazard, Ba upfront.

Chelsea began positively and a goal came under just ten minutes. Willian sent over a corner which was flicked on at the near post by Oscar and Demba Ba pounced.

Good start. Nerves settled. Let’s go to town.

Alas, the rest of the first-half offered little to cheer. In fact, Steaua could easily have levelled the score, only for Iancu to shoot wide. On several occasions, they worked the ball into our box but – thankfully – the ball tended to miraculously avoid an away player. Both Oscar and Hazard were quiet. Mikel had started poorly, managed to get himself booked, but then redeemed himself with a few cool pieces of play. At a Chelsea corner, I watched as an unmarked Lampard on the edge of the box signalled for the ball to be played out to him. The resultant volley was spectacular but was hit high of Tatarusanu’s bar.

Lots of huff and puff in the first-half, not much quality.

I noted that the scoreboard above the away fans was showing that Demba Ba had scored for Steaua and we were losing 1-0. I wondered if the work of Nicolae Ceausescu was still being done.

At half-time, a lovely moment.

Our much-loved former right-back / wing back / midfielder Dan Petrescu was given a lovely introduction by Neil Barnett. Dan was the first “foreigner” to play two hundred games for us. How we loved his shuffling style and his incisive passing. He was serenaded by Chelsea fans and Steaua fans alike. He played for Steaua in the 1989 European Cup Final versus the mighty Milan. I love it that he now manages Dynamo Moscow; a club forever linked with the history of Chelsea Football Club. At The Shed, he momentarily picked up a Steaua scarf and the away fans lapped it up.

Superb stuff.

That was probably the highlight of the night.

As the game restarted, a few fans in the Matthew Harding attempted to “get things going” and I, at least, joined in. But generally, it was quiet. There was not one single song from the 12,000 spectators in the West Stand. The Shed were quiet. It was one of those nights.  I often wonder what a lost soul from the “drought years” would make of these European Nights at Stamford Bridge these days. What would an exiled Brit, maybe now living in Australia, returning to a revamped Bridge for the first time since 1990 make of it.

“Fackinell, I used to dream of nights like this at Chelsea. The stadium looks brilliant. Everyone close to the pitch. Flags everywhere. Loads of colour. Should be made for nights like this. But why is nobody fackin’ singing?”

There were few highlights in a very low key second period.

Ba had a great chance soon into the second period but blasted high.

Andre Schurrle, who had probably his best game in a CFC shirt in Bucharest, was introduced by Mourinho and soon enjoyed an impressive run at the heart of the Steaua defence. His direct play pleases me. On this occasion, he struck at goal and the rebound was headed over by Hazard.

Ba was played in and volleyed home, but was ruled offside.

As the match continued on, for once I was egging the clock to reach “90.”

Not to signify a Chelsea win, just for the game to end and for me to get home.

This was clearly a mediocre Chelsea performance. I sensed a great feeling of numbed disappointment in the lack of attacking verve rather than euphoria about cementing pole position in our group. There was little there for me to admire.

As I left the stadium, I walked around to touch the Peter Osgood statue; a bit of a superstition on Champions League Nights for me.

A quick touch of his right boot.

And thoughts of Athens, Istanbul, St. Petersburg, Milan and Leverkusen.

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4 thoughts on “Tales From The Group Phase

  1. The fans need to be louder regardless of the kind of game being played. You’re part of the reason the performances at home are mediocre. You need to be louder and cheer them on. It goes both ways! There’s a reason that stadiums have 40,000+ seats

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