Chelsea vs. West Bromwich Albion : 11 December 2016.
The talk before the game was dominated by “the run.” We had beaten off eight consecutive opponents, and were now faced – in the eyes of some – with a five further games which seemed evidently winnable. Until we face Tottenham at White Hart Lane on the fourth day of the new year, there seemed to be a very real chance that we just might be able to stretch our run further. After the high noon appointment at Stamford Bridge with the in-form Baggies, our fixture list would continue on with two aways against lowly Sunderland and Crystal Palace and then two homes against Bournemouth and Stoke City.
To be honest, none of my close mates – in car and pub – expected us to win all five, which would mean a ridiculous thirteen consecutive wins, and in fact our pre-match chat tended to be one huge cliché all by itself.
“This one could be the hardest of the lot / West Brom are no mugs / let’s take one game at a time.”
We chatted about potential changes to our line-up. Would Luiz be fully fit? Would Matic automatically return? Would Pedro still edge out Willian?
There was also the grim realisation that a midday kick-off on a Sunday against an unfashionable team was just about the worst possible combination ever in order to generate any atmosphere at all.
We were in the stadium early. There were clear blue skies overhead. Unsurprisingly, West Brom only brought around 1,400 supporters. The manager had decided to go with the familiar starting eleven.
Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahill.
Moses, Matic, Kante, Alonso.
Pedro, Costa, Hazard.
Just before the teams came on the pitch, a fine tribute to Frank Lampard was unfurled in The Shed Upper. It depicted his iconic double-point to the heavens with the simple legend “Frank Lampard 211.”
The game began with a few pockets of seats still unfilled, but these were soon occupied. The low winter sun sent long shadows across the Stamford Bridge turf. On a few occasions, wide players in front of the East Stand had to hide the sun from their faces with both hands. Both managers were patrolling their technical areas.
The dapper Italian Conte, shiny hair and suited, softly-spoken but with passion aplenty, cajoling his players, a picture of constant encouragement mixed with urbane sophistication. Every inch a modern football man.
The Welshman Pulis, with his slightly Anglicised Newport accent and demonic eyebrows, looked a different creature sporting the attire of a dog walker rather than a football manager with his trademark baseball cap and tracksuit.
We began brightly enough with Diego Costa leading the way nicely with fine possession, taking him in and around the packed West Brom box. Down below us, he glided past defenders, appearing to dummy a rabona in order to confuse one poor soul. And then we seemed to lose our way a little. Chris Brunt shot wide past Thibaut Courtois’ goal. West Brom put together a few good spells of possession. It was as if – ugh – we were not focused, not energised, not “up for it.”
Stamford Bridge was eerily quiet. At times there seemed to be complete and utter silence. I could just about decipher a mating call from the away supporters in the far corner.
“You’re just a ground full of tourists.”
Midway through the first-half, we had hardly had one single chance. There had been a low cross in to the box which had evaded all of our attackers, but no real strike on goal. The visitors had racked up three or four. Rondon, proving a handful for the slightly ill-at-ease David Luiz, managed a shot which flew past the far post. We were struggling, and it came as a surprise. Then the ball was played to N’Golo Kante who struck from thirty yards. The low shot took a deflection and slowly squirmed past Ben Foster’s near post.
Eden Hazard, struggling to make an impact, was scythed down and we worried if he was able to continue. He must surely be the most hacked player in England. We improved slightly as the first-half came to an end, but the West Brom goal had not been troubled. There had been two David Luiz free-kicks from distance, but both of these did not cause Ben Foster concern.
It had been a quiet, frustrating half.
As the whistle blew, there were a few boos, but I am sure that this was a reaction to the time-wasting tactics employed by the West Brom manager and team. We have seen it before with Tony Pulis’ teams in the past. It is both tedious and mean-spirited.
Bobby Tambling was on the pitch at half-time and we had heard on the grapevine that Frank Lampard was watching too; I was sure these two Chelsea greats would enjoy a catch-up later in the day.
We hoped that Conte would inspire his troops with a rousing half-time team talk. It had been a while since we had played so listlessly.
It felt odd to see us attacking The Shed in the second-half.
From a central position, another David Luiz free-kick, and this one caused Foster to scramble across and keep out, although the referee Mike Dean – looking ridiculous in a bright cerise shirt – failed to spot the touch and gave a goal-kick.
Chances were still at an absolute premium. Space was nowhere to be seen in the packed and well-marshaled West Brom defence. Whereas they had enjoyed a few forays into our half in the first period, they were content to sit and defend throughout the second forty-five minutes. This was a typical away performance for lesser teams coming to The Bridge. Just after the hour, Willian replaced Pedro and immediately injected a little more directness to our play. He shimmied inside and tested Foster. Very often we were massing players out wide, but once the ball was played in to the box, we were low on numbers. How we missed a late-arriving Frank Lampard to slot home. With fifteen minutes to go, Cesc Fabregas replaced Victor Moses, who had not had his best of games. The substitutions gave us fresh legs, and we seemed to be galvanised. The momentum was certainly with us.
I kept thinking (silently) “we’ll win this 1-0 with a late goal.”
Foster fell on a loose ball after a Fabregas corner. Chances were still ridiculously rare.
But this was still an interesting game to me. I kept encouraging the team. I kept discussing with Alan how we could break them down. It was an exercise in patience for both the fans and the team. It was a proper tactical battle.
And then the ball was pushed forward by Fabregas for Diego Costa to chase. Some twenty out, and close to the West Stand side line, our number nineteen put pressure on Gareth McAuley. Diego picked his pocket and raced on. He bore in on goal, steadied himself and shot high past Foster. The net rippled and Stamford Bridge boomed.
What a goal by Diego.
He raced down past the frantic celebrations in The Shed Lower, jumping with joy, before almost disappearing into the crowd in the corner.
This was a phenomenal goal. Diego had no right to score from there. But score he did.
He is playing at such a high level these days. He looks trimmer than ever, chases every rogue ball, brings others into the game. It took a while for me to warm to him to be honest, but he is – as the saying goes – unplayable at the moment. Fantastic stuff.
In the closing moments, we never looked like letting West Brom back in to the game. Marcos Alonso struck a rising shot over the bar, and Branislav Ivanovic – this season’s closer – came on to replace Eden.
At the final whistle, a mixture of elation and relief. I was right about winning 1-0. Phew.
Outside, and underneath the Peter Osgood statue, I met up with two brothers – Robert and James – who were visiting from the US. It was their first ever visit to these shores, and of course their first-ever visit to SW6. Robert had watched from the Matthew Harding Lower, but James had been the lucky one, watching from the Shed Lower. He was bubbling with satisfaction after being so close to not only Diego’s goal but also to his celebratory run to the corner.
So, we had done it. We had eked out a narrow 1-0 win against a stubborn West Brom team. With hindsight, it might turn out to be a key result this season, not only in terms of points gained, but as a valued learning exercise of how to keep going against a team offering little.
On the drive home, there was further satisfaction as Liverpool dropped points at home to West Ham United, while Tottenham lost at Old Trafford. After Manchester City’s shock capitulation at Leicester City, this had been a fine weekend.
Mind the gap.
In previous autumns we have enjoyed Champions League trips to foreign climes. On Wednesday, we have a 2016/2017 version of these midweek excursions; The Chuckle Bus will be headed north to the tired and Weary city of Sunderland for a midweek battle against the division’s bottom club. We have an overnight stay all sorted. The delights of Newcastle and Sunderland await and I am sure that I won’t be the only one hoping for ten in a row.
I can’t wait.
See you there.