Chelsea vs. Southampton : 16 December 2017.
The four of us were hurtling towards London in The Chuckle Bus, and we were chatting about the current state of affairs at the top of the table. We spoke about our recent performances, and those of our immediate rivals. Manchester City, who were due to play Tottenham later in the day at tea-time, appear to walking away with the title this season. Of course all we can aim to do is keep winning as many games as possible, and to finish as high as we can. If, as is likely – though not certain – City go on to win the title, then so be it. There are many other, darker, alternatives.
I thought about things and did my best to sum it all up.
I slowed myself down, and spoke gently and firmly, and my tone reminded me of Tommy Shelby.
“If we finish above Arsenal. If we finish Manchester United. If we finish above Liverpool. If we finish above Tottenham. That will bloody well do for me.”
“Too bloody right.”
“By order of the Chuckle fucking Brothers.”
I was unable to attend the away game at Huddersfield Town during the week due to work commitments. I listened with interest as Parky and P Diddy spoke of their time in The Crown public house and the John Smiths Stadium. Of all the teams likely to be embroiled in the relegation battle this season, Huddersfield are the team that I would like to scramble clear; I had never visited Leeds Road, I have never visited their new place. It is on my footballing bucket list.
Our pre-match was spent under the large TV screen in “The Famous Three Kings” at West Kensington, which was showing the Leicester City vs. Crystal Palace match. We touched on those teams battling at the bottom. Over half of the teams in the top flight, I would suggest, will be mentioned in dispatches about those likely to be relegated.
It’s turning into a strange season.
Manchester City striding alone at the very top. A chasing pack of six or seven, battling each other for Champions League spots. And then, the rest who are scrapping under a threat of relegation, while swapping and trading managers in some sort of bizarre ritual along the way.
Our visitors Southampton suffered a setback during the week after losing to Leicester City, who themselves were getting slammed by Crystal Palace on the TV. In a season where teams appear to be taking points of each other, three points are king. I was not overly-worried by Southampton, but hoped that the players would be totally focused.
Outside, there were grey skies, and occasional rain. The pub was pretty quiet.
We spoke about our chances of silver wear this season.
I was brutally frank.
“To be quite honest, we might not win anything this season.”
It doesn’t matter. We’ll still show up week in, week out. We have nights away already planned for Norwich, the Nou Camp, and Newcastle.
Whatever will be will be.
We chatted about the various shapes that Conte can chose from. We all admitted that it is a benefit to have options at our disposal. The 3-4-3 of last season with wider support players for Morata. The 3-5-2 of this season with Eden tucked in. The “false nine” – or not, please don’t email me – of the three chosen for Huddersfield, with Eden, Pedro and Willian flitting around with menace.
Among all this was the enigma of Batshuayi.
Some strikers have always struggled at Chelsea.
Even in the all-conquering 2004/2005 season we had Mateja Kezman, another player who left us for Atletico Madrid, but with his reputation sullied.
Do not be surprised if Michy is moved on in the summer.
We caught the tube down to Fulham Broadway. We spotted that the little gaggle of lads who had been drinking in the pub looked a little lost at Earl’s Court, and mistook P Diddy’s West Country burr to be that of a Southampton supporter. They were obviously away fans. On the slow walk out of Fulham Broadway, a few of the lads growled a chant.
It was soon met with a robust “Carefree.”
There was no trouble though, why would there be?
I was in early at 2.45pm. I soon spotted that Southampton would be backed by a full three thousand. They don’t always turn up at Stamford Bridge, even though their city is but seventy-five miles away.
Over in the lower tiers of the East Lower, I spotted specks of white. Santa Hats had been draped over the seats as a gift from the club, and a few hundred were already wearing them.
I then realised that not only children were wearing them.
I suspect that the adults wearing them were the same type of person who revels in wearing Christmas jumpers.
And comedy ties.
And comedy socks.
They should get out more.
Or stay in.
Preferably the latter.
We reviewed the team that Antonio Conte had chosen. Again no Michy. See above.
Azpilicueta – Christensen – Cahill
Moses – Bakayoko – Kante – Alonso
Willian – Hazard – Pedro
I was surprised that neither Austin, Tadic and Van Dijk were not starting for the visitors.
The flags drifted over the heads of those in the Matthew Harding and The Shed. Southampton have gone retro this season, wearing a reasonable replica of their Patrick kit from the early ‘eighties, which was worn by Kevin Keegan in his two seasons at The Dell.
The game began.
After an even start, Southampton edged the first quarter of an hour. A rare mistake by N’Golo Kante resulted in Southampton picking up his loose pass and Nathan Redmond crossed into the box, and Gary Cahill nervously cleared, but not before stumbling in that way of his.
Chelsea started to create some chances of our own. A busy Willian carved out a fine chance down the left but his shot was just wide. An Alonso volley. Tiemoue Bakayko struck from distance but a defender was able to block. A Cahill shot from outside the box was saved by Fraser Forster. A rising shot from Kante was hit with power but Forster moved well to save.
Santa hats or not, the atmosphere was dire.
At the half-hour, there had not been a single stadium-wide song or chant, not even the standard “go to” one in praise of the manager.
A nightingale sang in Berkeley Square.
I bloody heard it.
A quick break involving all three of our strikers and a shot from Willian was blocked. At times we were a little self-indulgent, but we were well in control. An Alonso turn and shot was saved by the Saints ‘keeper, who was by far the busier of the two.
There was a muted “come on Chelsea”, barely audible, from the Matthew Harding Lower.
Ryan Bertrand was often involved in the rare forays that Southampton enjoyed throughout the first-half. As he chased an over hit ball down by in front of the corner flag, he ended up next to some Chelsea fans; one fan must have said something amusing because Ryan beamed a lovely smile. It was a super moment.
I wondered what the fan had said. It was, no doubt, Munich-related.
With half-time approaching, Pedro danced into the box with a typical shimmying run, but saw his shot bounce off the post.
Then, just as half-time was surely only a few seconds away, we were awarded a free-kick around twenty-five yards out. It was to the left of the “D.”
Chris : “Willian territory.”
Glenn : “Come on Marcos.”
Chris : “Nah. Wrong side, Willian will have this.”
With that, Marcos Alonso took me – and Forster – by surprise, and curled a free-kick over the leaping wall, which crept in just inside the post.
Much laughter from myself, from Alan, from Glenn, plus Albert in front, who was thinking the same thing as me.
It was, of course, the perfect time to score, bang on the half-time whistle.
Willian began the second-half in the same way that he had begun the first period, speeding into space despite being heavily marked but blasted over.
A shot from Dave was high and wide. Damn.
With ten minutes of the second-half on the clock, at last a song rang out around Stamford Bridge, to the tune of “Amazing Grace.”
“Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea – Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea.”
Southampton brought on Charlie Austin and the striker caught us a little flat-footed at the back, causing a Thibaut to save well.
Antonio Conte replaced Pedro with Cesc Fabregas.
Down below us, Eden Hazard smashed home after being teed up by Fabregas, but it was obvious that Cesc had drifted into an offside position.
There was a little more noise, but not much more.
Willian drilled a chest-high pass towards Alonso, who did well to control before volleying towards goal. No surprises, Foster – rather dramatically – saved.
Another change; Alvaro Morata replaced Eden Hazard.
The substitute soon forced another save from Forster.
Down at the Shed End, the lively Austin forced another save from Courtois, on his haunches, and the chance went begging.
A quickly-played free-kick down below us resulted in Fabregas gliding into the box, drawing the goalkeeper out, then subtly pushing the ball past him. Time slowed to a standstill as the ball rolled along the line, but without the necessary spin to carry the ball over.
Oh for a second goal.
The rain fell.
Davide Zappacosta replaced Moses.
With a slender 1-0 lead, things became predictably nervous. Southampton had certainly improved after the addition of Austin. Nathan Redmond had developed into a threat as the game progressed.
That man Austin went close at the near post after a low cross.
In the last remaining minutes, we thankfully dominated. A Bakayoko header was followed by efforts from Alonso, Morata, Fabregas and Azpilicueta. But Forster, the man of the moment, was not to be beaten a second time.
So there we have it. A game that will not live too long in the memory.
There was no standout player.
There were steady 7/10 performances throughout.
But sometimes it is just fine to have a team full of Daves.
On the drive home, with thankfully no traffic nightmares this time, we listened half-halfheartedly as Manchester City demolished Tottenham 4-1. There was pleasure at Spurs’ defeat more than displeasure at City’s win.
On the M4, the Chuckle Bus overtook the Southampton team coach just before it turned south on to the M25.
Chelsea’s pursuit of Manchester City will not be so straightforward.
If this is to be some sort of bizarre chase to second place this season, then so be it.
See you on Wednesday.