Chelsea vs. Maccabi Tel Aviv : 16 September 2015.
Immediately after the Everton game, with Dean and myself driving down the M6, we listened to an interview with our troubled manager on Five Live. I thought that Jose spoke calmly and succinctly about the team’s poor performance, and he was clear that the blame should lie firmly with him. It was just the sort of bullshit-free statement that I was longing for. His tongue-in-cheek comment, undoubtedly used to defuse the tension of the moment, about a malfunctioning computer was just a comic aside, illustrating how nothing was going right for him and the team, and nothing more than that.
Yet some within the Chelsea ranks were keen to pounce on this, claiming that Mourinho had “lost it.”
I didn’t share that opinion.
Yet it seemed to be typical of some supporters within our ranks at the moment, so quick to criticise and moan, yet so unwilling to praise and support.
We needed more of the latter in our next match.
The evening game against Maccabi Tel Aviv in the first fixture of our Champions League campaign was, to use a well-worn phrase, a “must win” game. We needed it desperately. We needed it to breathe life in to our faltering season.
My new place of work, Melksham, is fifteen minutes closer to my home. It is, however, fifteen minutes further away from Stamford Bridge. It is therefore, regarding this fact in isolation, possibly a toss-up if I am better off working in Melksham or Chippenham.
Parky’s days of meeting me for midweek jaunts to football at “The Pheasant” were now over. At just after 3.30pm, I collected him from “The Milk Churn” pub, just opposite the new factory and warehouse just south of Melksham. Parky had spent enough time in there to quaff three pints of cider and also to run in to TV presenter Jeremy Kyle, who had stopped in there for a meal on the way home after filming at a location nearby.
Jeremy Kyle, Melksham, Parky…so many jokes, so little time. I have a match report to write.
After two weeks of inaction during the despised international break, we were now in the thick of it. As I battled the truly awful weather on the rain-lashed M4, we worked out that Chelsea were now in the midst of a seven games in twenty-two days marathon.
The beats from a ‘seventies compilation accompanied our final miles as the traffic worsened near London.
It took me a weighty three-and-a-half hours to reach my parking spot on Chesson Road. There was no time for The Goose, no time for anything. The wet and grey streets around Fulham Broadway seemed rather quiet. I knew that many spares were being spoken about on Facebook leading up to the game. I hoped there would not be swathes of empty seats.
The team was announced and the manager had indeed made considerable changes.
Asmir in goal. Dave at right back with Ivanovic out. Cahill and Zouma in the middle with JT out. A debut from Baba Rahman at left-back. Loftus-Cheek alongside Cesc, so no Matic and no Mikel. Oscar in, alongside Willian and Eden. Remy up top, with Diego Costa out.
Clearly a chance for some to shine, but a time for soul-searching and contemplation for those dropped.
In truth, this game against Maccabi Tel Aviv should – and I emphasise the word “should” – have been the easiest of the entire group, so it is quite likely that Mourinho would have rotated his chess pieces in any case, regardless of the poor start to the season.
I met up with Alan in our usual seats and looked over to the three thousand brightly-coloured away fans, bedecked in yellow and blue. They were already poised for action, all standing, and holding a large “Fanatics” banner at the front of The Shed Upper. This would be, undoubtedly, yet another night when we would be out sung by our numerical inferiors.
The teams, the walk, the flashing cameras, the anthem.
Another European night in SW6.
Let’s not take them for granted.
Two returning ex-Chelsea players were looking to inflict further pain to our slow start to the season; manager Slavisa Jokanovic (you try forget about him, and he bloody shows up twice in the same year) and centre-half Tal Ben-Haim (who still looks more like a sodding lorry driver than a professional footballer).
There were empty seats everywhere as the game began, but thankfully these were virtually all filled not long in to the game. The Champions League debutant Loftus-Cheek was harshly yellow-carded for a high tackle after only a few minutes.
Willian was put clean through by Remy, but was taken out by goalkeeper Rajkovic. A penalty was given, but alas the ‘keeper was not shown a red card. We waited for Eden Hazard to strike. His shot cleared the bar and almost the hotel too.
It was all Chelsea in the opening period. After a quarter of an hour, Willian curled a free-kick in to the box, and the ball bounced in “no man’s land” and up in to the goal without striking anyone. It was eerily similar to the goal which Oscar scored on the opening day of the season against Swansea, although from a straighter angle.
Alan and I relished our first Champions League “THTCAUN/COMLD” routine of the season.
Sadly soon after, Willian was injured, to be replaced by Diego Costa.
Remy moved wider to accommodate him.
After a complete half-an-hour, the visitors enjoyed an effort on goal, but this was largely one-way traffic. We enjoyed tons of the ball, but with only a few real strikes on goal. Ben-Haim, as clumsy as ever, fouled Diego Costa, and Oscar calmly slotted the ball in from the second penalty of the night.
I was impressed with the cool authority of Loftus-Cheek throughout the opening period. In the second-half, I was looking forward to seeing the slim newcomer Baba Rahman up and down the left-flank down below me.
At the half-time break, I met up with Brad and Sean, visiting for just two days from New York, and over just for the Chelsea game. They were thrilled to be witnessing a European Night for the first time. They had great seats in the second row of the MHU. Yes, some of the “tourists” who frequent Stamford Bridge are no more football people than Tal Ben-Haim, but many, like Brad and Sean, are ardent Chelsea supporters. They should not all be tarred with the same brush.
Two goals to the good, I hoped for a few more in the second period.
As I looked over at the three-thousand Israeli supporters, with several Star of David flags being flown, I could not help think back on a time when the presence of so many Jewish supporters at Stamford Bridge might well have resulted in no end of unsavoury comments, songs, and chants from a faction of our support of the time.
I’m so glad those days are gone.
I loved the noise and intimidating atmosphere of those times, but songs celebrating concentration camps have no place at football.
It was again all Chelsea in the second-half. A nice run deep in to the Tel Aviv box from Baba Rahman hinted at greater things. He looks a natural on the ball.
On the hour, a lovely ball from Cesc Fabregas was played in to the waiting Diego Costa. His right foot rose to cushion it high into the Tel Aviv goal, and it immediately reminded me of Fernando Torres’ goal at Arsenal in the autumn of 2012.
It was a fantastic strike.
The players crowded both Diego and Cesc. That chemistry seemed to be back, thank heavens.
Just after, a notable event happened in the long and undulating relationship twixt Jose Mourinho and the Chelsea supporters. Previously in the game, there had been elongated shouts of “Jose Mourinho” to which our manager quickly took his right hand out of his pocket or alongside his waist and flicked a quick wave of the hand. This time, though, it was different. From somewhere within the bowels of the stadium came a warm chant of “stand up for the special one” which lasted for quite some time, perhaps the best part of a minute. To this, Mourinho waved to all parts of the stadium and, though it is of course conjecture, looked both surprised at the noise levels and touched by the sentiment. Here’s the thing though; rather than just words, there were actions too. Virtually everyone in the Matthew Harding rose to their feet, and even those in the West Lower too. And the noise was probably the loudest of the entire night. I am sure The Shed followed suit.
I know that Mourinho sometimes annoys me with his petulance and – yes, I’ll say it – arrogance, but there shouldn’t be many Chelsea fans that would like to see him gone. I have a feeling that his behaviour over the next few seasons will keep us occupied for certain, though I doubt that his more curmudgeonly traits might wane.
It had, of course, been a tough time for Mourinho since the poor loss at Goodison Park on Saturday. The media were only too pleased to be able to prod him with a few verbal barbs, though Mourinho typically came out of it all unscathed. I particularly enjoyed him reacting to a reporter asking about the potential for 2015/2016 to become a typically tough “third season.” Jose bit back well citing his far from wretched record during his third season at Chelsea, in which he won two domestic cups, reached a Champions League semi-final (losing on penalties, sorry to have to remind everyone) and finished second in the Premier League.
A typically “tough” third season, very similar to 2006/2007, would not go amiss in the current circumstances to be honest.
A fine rampaging run from Baba, with defenders nervously scurrying around in his wake like wasters awaiting DNA results on the Jeremy Kyle Show, was roundly applauded by the home supporters.
I hoped and prayed for more goals. A nice 6-0 would shut the doubters up. Although the away fans had been jumping around for parts of the first-half, their songs soon quietened after our third goal.
Ramires replaced Oscar, who had looked lively throughout the game.
Maccabi Tel Aviv were, quite honestly, one of the worst teams that I have seen at Chelsea, certainly at the European level, for ages.
Bertrand Traore, replacing Loftus-Cheek, came on for his full Chelsea debut.
A quick break, typical Chelsea, ended with Loic Remy striking a ball low which the Tel Aviv ‘keeper pushed away. The ball ended up at the feet of Cesc Fabregas, who looked marginally offside, but who calmly slotted home.
In the closing moments, Traore came close and then Igiebor missed a sitter.
I was pleased that we kept a clean sheet. I was pleased that we had won. Yet there was no over-the-top reaction from neither Parky nor myself. Our opponents had not tested us at all. It was time to be thankful for a win, but also to keep our heads clear and focused. We were not relegation material before our game against Maccabi, nor are we front runners in the march to Milan in May after it.
Keep it steady, Chelsea.