Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 26 October 2014.
Bluff And Double Bluff.
During the several days of build-up to the Manchester United vs. Chelsea match at Old Trafford, there seemed to be constant rumours in the media and among fellow Chelsea supporters concerning the fitness of Diego Costa. Would he be fit or would he not? There were fears about his delicate hamstring injury, but some Chelsea fans were of the opinion that this was a smoke screen used by Jose Mourinho and the club in order to stay “one step ahead” of the opposition, with our new striker likely to undergo a Lazarus-like improvement before our game at Old Trafford. There was also a shady report of a stomach bug too. The home match against Maribor on Tuesday, which I missed, provided further problems and confusion. Loic Remy, Diego Costa’s likely replacement at Old Trafford (should his injury prove scare prove to be justified – “wink wink”) managed to injure himself, thus ruling him out of the game in Manchester. Didier Drogba, Remy’s replacement on Tuesday, then played around seventy minutes himself. Would Jose Mourinho have played Didier for such an elongated spell, knowing full well that he would likely be his Hobson’s Choice of a starter on Sunday? From one perspective, it appeared “odds-on” that Diego Costa would be miraculously recover and start against United. On the long and familiar drive north to Old Trafford, the talk in the car was almost devoid of football chat, but on the rare occasions that we mentioned the game ahead, the main talking point was centred on Diego Costa.
“Would he or wouldn’t he?”
Parky and PD, my fellow travellers on the five hour car journey were gung-ho about our chances, but as we swung around the orbital motorway to the south of Manchester, I was a little more pragmatic.
“To be honest, I wouldn’t be too upset with a draw. I just want to avoid defeat.”
Manchester United, top-heavy with summer signings, was a team of unknown risk in my eyes. Sure, their defence was prone to silly errors and could be harmed by our tricky offensive players, but they possessed a combustible cocktail of attacking options themselves.
However, I was surprisingly confident as I drove into Manchester. I’m sure we could cause them problems. Even without Diego Costa.
Under The Munich Clock.
We were parked-up at around 2.30pm. We paid the requisite £10 to a weather-beaten local, who resembled the third Chuckle Brother, to park outside a garage on the road which leads from the Chester Road to Old Trafford cricket ground.
“Are you lads Chel-seh?”
“I want you to win today.”
He reached out to shake my hand.
“City?” I asked.
“I’m blue through and through, me.”
Within twenty minutes, we had walked through the park and then past more parking spots, then past The Bishop Blaize pub – with songs from inside – and then past the chippies at the crossroads. These sights – and sites – were oh-so familiar by know. The red brick of the houses, the red scarves of the United fans, the towering white steel of the stadium behind. Down on the forecourt, we waited for a few moments on the off-chance of bumping into some friendly faces. Alan and Gary soon appeared, fresh from the official coach trip which left Stamford Bridge at 9am. There had been trouble on the trains, apparently, with another mate – Dave the Hat – forced to travel up to Sheffield and across from there. Tickets were handed over for future games. The forecourt, as always, was a volatile mix of United and Chelsea. Squabbles only tend to happen after the games at Old Trafford these days, though. With the Munich clock looking down on the hub-bub of activity below, we decided to head inside. It was 3.15pm.
In Previous Episodes.
This would be my twentieth Manchester United vs. Chelsea away game, and my eleventh consecutive away league fixture. It all started, for me, on an electric night at Old Trafford in April 1986, when a Kerry Dixon brace gave us a breath-taking 2-1 win, with four thousand Chelsea fans crammed into the pens in front of “K Stand” – as it was called in those days – with thousands of belligerent United fans right behind us, glowering, gesticulating and screaming support of their team.
Their shrill shouts of “United! United! United!” is a very strong memory, some twenty-eight years later.
Since then there have been tons of memories. Two odd – recent – games are fresh in my mind. In the opening period of the 2011-2012 season, we travelled north under Villas-Boas. Although we lost 3-1, there were lots of positives on that sunny afternoon; I can never remember a game where we had lost, yet the fans had departed the stadium in such a positive mood. Then, last season, we witnessed a very dour performance – from both teams – and a 0-0 draw, with Jose Mourinho electing to play without a recognised striker.
Strange ways in deepest Manchester.
As I waited for an announcement of our team, I wondered if Mourinho would spring a surprise on us again. Last season, Andre Schurrle was the one man asked to run from deep and pose the biggest offensive threat. Who would be asked to lead the line this time?
The South-East Corner.
I took my place, high up in the corner quadrant of the away section. I tut-tutted as I sidled past a family of four, each wearing a half-and-half scarf, calmly sitting and observing.
“Tourists” I mumbled silently to myself.
Of course, as I have said before, Chelsea has thousands of passionate and committed supporters the world over, who truly “get” what Chelsea is all about, but why do so many others who attend in person have to be such divs?
Answers on a postcard.
There was noise from the crowded bar areas below, but all was quiet within the stadium, which seemed to take forever to fill. At last, the Chelsea team appeared – in their jade warm-up gear, how 1986 – and I quickly scanned the ten outfield players.
“No Diego Costa.”
There were looks of dismay on the faces of my companions in the south-east corner.
“Up to you then, Didier, son.”
I was momentarily subdued. Could our returning hero stand up to two games in six days? We would soon find out. As kick-off approached, the stands filled and the noise-levels rose. The United PA tried its best to rouse the locals.
“Dirty Old Town.”
The Chelsea choir dipped into its songbook. The players appeared from the tunnel in the south-west corner. We were ready.
I was pretty content with our performance in the opening forty-five minutes. From the start, it seemed that we were confident in possession and resolute in defence. I noted that our use of Didier Drogba was now different than in previous years. Before, we would knock balls into channels or over the top and ask our marauding Ivorian to use his speed and strength to strike fear into opposing defences. Now, he was being asked to come deeper and retain the ball in order to set up runners off him. Our play was a little more compact. A lot depended on our midfield three, or five. Eden Hazard was at times unplayable in the first-half. One shimmy dumbfounded two United players in a gorgeous moment of play. Matic harried and blocked and then supported his team mates with a number of surging runs. Oscar and Fabgregas, though, seemed adrift. It was a pleasing first half, but with only two golden chances. The lively Januzaj played in Robin van Persie who found himself in on goal, but Thibaut Courtois blocked superbly. At the other end, in front of the Stretford End, Oscar reached the by-line, and pulled the ball back to Didier Drogba. His low shot was blocked by the legs of De Gea. United had peppered our goal at regular intervals throughout the first period, but we were largely untroubled. It was odd to see Juan Mata in United red, in person, against us.
The North-West Corner.
I had been in contact with a newly-acquainted friend from Orlando in Florida during the day; we had hoped to meet up outside, but Kim and her friend Jenna were firmly ensconced in one of Old Trafford’s hospitality lounges by the time I had arrived at the stadium. They were watching from way up in the north-west corner, in one of the quadrants that were “infilled” around eight years ago. I wondered how Kim was coping in a sea of United. I wondered if she could hear us singing. I wondered how her day was going; I bet she would rather swap her seat to be among us a hundred yards away and a hundred feet lower.
We began brightly, with Hazard again leading the charge. At the other end, Fellaini wasted a good chance by skimming a shot wide. Hazard was clean in on goal, but De Gea was able to save. The Chelsea choir looked away disconsolately, but roared the team on as a corner was rewarded. I held my camera still and waited for the ball to reach the box. In a flash, I saw Didier Drogba leap, virtually untroubled, at the near post. I clicked.
The ball crashed into the net and the three-thousand Chelsea fans in the south-east corner screamed in ecstasy. I was knocked sideways, then backwards and I clung on to the chap next to me, not wanting to fall back and injure myself. If the goal was a virtual carbon copy of Didier’s leap and header in Munich, then so too were the celebrations. This time, though, I managed to keep hold of my glasses. The scenes were of pandemonium; away goals in big games are celebrated like no other.
I steadied myself just in time to witness Didier and his team mates celebrating wildly in front of us.
I had one thought.
I then had a thought about Tuesday night and Didier’s penalty, hit to the left, which so resembled his winning penalty in Munich. I playfully wondered if his role now was to just replay these two historic moments from “that night” on a constant loop for the rest of the season.
“And Drogba, with his twelfth near post header of the season…”
Kim sent me a text; the two of them had screamed with delight at Didier’s goal and were now being treated like Ebola victims in the North-West Upper.
We continued to impress, with Matic being especially dominant.
I received a text from Steve in South Philadelphia :
“On comes Mikel, Mourinho’s closer.”
In baseball, with a team winning late on, a coach brings in a steady and reliable pitcher – “a closer” – to keep things tight and maintain the advantage. Closers tend to have nerves of steel. It was typical Mourinho. He replaced the subdued Oscar.
Juan Mata was clapped by the Chelsea contingent as he too was substituted. Ivanovic, who had enjoyed a physical battle with De Maria all game, broke in to the United box, but his cross come shot flashed past the far post. The impressive Willian, bundles of energy, went close. As the game wore on, we tended to drop deeper and deeper and our energy levels dropped. United kept probing. I had memories of a late equaliser in 1997 at the Stretford End. Ugh.
Schurrle replaced Hazard, then Zouma replaced Willian.
Four minutes of extra time.
Then, a “coming together” of bodies down our right and Ivanovic, already booked, was adjudged to have tripped De Maria. From over one hundred yards away, it looked like Brana had clipped him. He was given a second yellow and was dismissed.
“Come on Chelsea.”
The delivery from the free-kick found the leaping mop of Fellaini, but Courtois blocked. The ball fell advantageously to Van Persie who lashed the ball in.
Old Trafford roared and I watched, sick to the stomach, as the scorer ripped off his shirt and threw it into the Stretford End as if it was a match winner.
Twenty seconds later, the referee blew.
Within seconds, the away fans reminded everyone –
“We’re Top Of The League.”
Outside on the forecourt, there were police horses and scuffles.
We quickly raced back to the waiting car. I was at my pragmatic best. Although it was disappointing to give up a goal in the last twenty seconds, a draw meant that we had gone six points ahead of Manchester City, who remain our closest title rivals. I must admit that I was warmed with the thought of millions of United fans happy to draw at home with us. I edged out into the dark Manchester night and began our five hour drive home. After the familiarity of Old Trafford, we reconvene at a new stadium, Shrewsbury Town, on Tuesday.
I’ll see you there.