Tales From The Road To Berlin

Chelsea vs. Sporting Lisbon : 10 December 2014.

With our advancement into the knock-out phase of the Champions League already assured, the home game against Sporting Lisbon was another one of those rarities; a match which was, on the face of it, of no consequence. Not only were we through, but we were also guaranteed first place in our group. Some of my friends were already well advanced in planning potential trips to cities in February. Return visits to Basel, Leverkusen, Turin and Paris loomed.

Having missed-out on the 6-0 drubbing of Maribor in October, my last Champions League night was the tetchy 1-1 draw with Schalke in September. That draw meant that our trip out to the Portuguese capital became an important “must-win.” On a sultry night at Sporting’s home stadium, Chelsea triumphed in a very entertaining match. We haven’t looked back since.

PD took a turn to drive to London for this one. I commented to Parky –

“The weather will be a bit different tonight compared to the T-shirts and shorts weather in Lisbon, mate.”

Ah, Lisbon 2014 was a great trip indeed. Was it already over two months ago?

On the elevated section of the M4, with the night having fallen, and with neon advertising signs and a smattering of impressive new buildings welcoming us once again to England’s capital, I summed up my feelings from the back seat of PD’s car.

“I always feel like this road, from Heathrow in, seems like we’re entering London through the front door.”

They agreed.

It felt like we were getting the red carpet treatment – for us Chelsea fans, maybe the blue carpet – as I spent a few seconds lost in thought. I dwelt on the number of dignitaries, politicians, world leaders, heads of state, film stars, pop stars and rock stars who have entered London via that same route.

It was definitely an “in through the front door” moment. And Chelsea was just around the corner. I experienced a slight tingle of excitement.

There were lit Christmas trees lined up outside the Fuller’s brewery at Chiswick.

Another tingle.

We were inside The Goose just before 6pm. It didn’t appear to be particularly busy. This was another sell-out though, for a game which would be inherently bereft of high drama, due to the very nature of the game. Whether or not the 40,000 fans would be “the right type of fans” – think noise – is another matter of course.

We heard through the grapevine, while supping pints of lager and cider, that both Nemanja Matic and Jon Obi Mikel were starting. My first thought was  –

“Ha. Good old Jose. A Mourinho masterclass.”

Following our narrow defeat at Newcastle – another game I missed – I felt that too many fans throughout Planet Chelsea were too quick to criticise our much-maligned Nigerian midfielder. To be honest, I felt that we played pretty well in the first-half and, over the entire game, I agreed with the manager’s view that we deserved more. It wasn’t a time to studiously re-evaluate “what went wrong.” It was, simply, one of those games. However, too many fans were too quick to jump to the “Matic Good, Mikel Bad” conclusion in my view. If Jon Obi Mikel is good enough for Jose Mourinho, then he should be good enough for plasterers in Peckham, graphic designers in Guildford, warehouse workers in Wichita and dentists in Dallas.

That in the very next game Mourinho decided to play them both was just delicious.

While I was lining up at the turnstiles, I glimpsed my match ticket.

Chelsea vs. Sporting Clubbe De Portugal.

It took me by surprise even though I had seen a similar sign at their stadium in Lisbon.

Not Sporting Lisbon, then?

This was evidently another example of us, the English, getting the name of a famous European team completely wrong. Go to Italy and talk about “Inter Milan” and you will be met with puzzled looks from locals, maybe similar to those which greet Americans talking about rest rooms to the English. “Inter Milan” do not exist; if anything, it sounds like a clumsy amalgamation of the two clubs, like “Rangers Celtic” or “Liverpool Everton.” So, neither does “Sporting Lisbon” exist. From henceforth, I will seize the moment and call them “Sporting.” Until I forget.

As a tube train rattled by, just beyond the boundary wall outside the Matthew Harding, I thought back to the times of my youth when I travelled up to games with my parents and we would take the District Line from Earl’s Court to Fulham Broadway. The train would plunge underground after leaving West Brompton, swing west, then emerge in the day light and the scruffy embankment – festooned with litter and weeds – supporting the north terrace, would appear just yards away. I always used to edge over to the left-hand side of the train compartment, just so I could set eyes on Stamford Bridge – my mecca – for a few fleeting moments. I remember the base of that floodlight pylon, then a quick view of the West Stand roof, then the buildings of the Oswald Stoll Foundation. The Bridge was gone in a flash, but the memory is etched in my mind.

Inside Stamford Bridge, I was immediately impressed with the three thousand away fans who had made the trip, but I had momentarily overlooked the fact that Sporting were still in with a shout of progressing. We had been promised an appearance by Ruben Loftus-Cheek at some stage during the game; I had seen him play at Yankee Stadium in 2013, but this would be his official debut. The pairing of Matic and Mikel meant that Fabregas was playing in a more forward role. Maybe this wasn’t a game of no consequence after all. Maybe these fine-tunings might come to fruition come May, or June. Elsewhere, Kurt Zouma was alongside Gary Cahill, Petr Cech was back between the posts, Dave was playing right-back, Filipe Luis was at left-back and Fabregas was alongside Salah and Schurrle. Diego Costa was up top.

We were blessed with two early goals.

After just eight minutes, we were awarded a penalty when Filipe Luis was bundled to the floor just inside the Sporting box. Cesc Fabregas struck the ball home. On sixteen minutes, a fine move involving Matic picking out Schurrle, resulted in our recently-overlooked German exquisitely firing a low shot home.

We were 2-0 up and we were coasting.

Alan made a remark about the Brazilians, possibly in shock after their World Cup humiliation in the summer, doing well so far this season. Oscar has been in good form and I like Willian, though some don’t. Ramires has been OK, though not often used. Schurrle, the World Cup victor, however has been less successful. In some respects, the reverse might have been expected. Fair play to our Brazilian three; well done to them for digging in and bouncing back well.

We traded chances for a while. It wasn’t a bad game. The three thousand visitors from Lisbon kept singing, though it wasn’t one of the loudest away supports I have ever witnessed on these European nights. One of their songs surprised me; a Portuguese version of “Take Me Home Country Road.” I know that there is a bit of a link between Sporting and Manchester United – Nani, Ronaldo, Rojo – but I honestly didn’t know that it included the exchange of songs.

Nemanja Matic came close with a rising volley from twenty-five yards. I was behind the course of the ball all of the way; I’m still waiting for the net to ripple. I joked with Alan :

“Mikel would have scored that.”

I soon received a text from a good mate in the US who said :

“Mikel would have scored that.”

More efforts on goal were exchanged as the game wore on. In the stadium, there didn’t seem to be any atmosphere, as such, at all.

In the match programme, there was a feature on Vienna 1994, John Spencer and all that.

In the second-half, Schurrle soon fired over from a free-kick. Sporting quietened the docile Stamford Bridge crowd further when they nabbed a goal back. A crisp shot from Silva was fired low past Cech.

Game on? Not really. Only a wonderful finger-tip save from Patricio – their hero in the away game – kept Mo Salah from scoring with a fine shot. On fifty-five minutes, Cesc Fabregas sent a dipping corner into the box. Both Zouma and Cahill rose, but the latter managed to get his head to the ball. It was undoubtedly goal-bound, but none other than Jon Obi Mikel was on hand – seemingly not offside – to touch it over the line.

He scores when he wants, you know.

Mourinho rang the changes in the last fifteen minutes with Remy, Ramires and Ruben all coming on. There are high hopes for our Ruben. He was involved in a few moves during his ten minutes of debut action. Let’s hope that he becomes a part of our history at this club.

It had been a reasonable enough game. Another Chelsea win. Mustn’t grumble.

In 2015, more foreign fields await.

The story continues.

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One thought on “Tales From The Road To Berlin

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