Tales From Two Number Nines

Chelsea vs. Valencia : 17 September 2019.

I walked to Stamford Bridge with Alan. As we turned into the West Stand forecourt, and after we had bypassed the programme sellers and after we had safely navigated the bag search, I looked up and spotted Champions League insignia adorning, as I had expected, the West Stand frontage. I took a photo with my Samsung phone and posted it on “Facebook.”

“The Champions League. Chelsea Are Back.”

I knew I’d have to linger a while and take some images with my trusty Canon EOS1300D.

“See you inside, mate.”

We had spent the previous forty-five minutes or so in “Simmons” in the company of some very good friends – mainly from London and the Home Counties – and, before that, PD and I had spent a similar period in “The Goose” with lads and lasses from mainly the West Country. We had commented to each other that we thought both pubs were quieter than usual. There was no doubt in my mind that this did not suggest a less than full house for the visit of Valencia, but rather it was an indication that such nights see increasingly fewer “regulars” in attendance. Milling around outside Stamford Bridge were, indeed, natives of many nations.

European nights at Chelsea always did attract a more cosmopolitan and diverse crowd.

I took a wide-angle shot of the stand head-on, with everything nice and symmetrical. I then noted that the evening sky was gradually changing from a solid blue. On the drive up in the car – just PD and I again – the sky had been completely devoid of clouds. It had been a cracking afternoon. And now, at around 7.15pm or so, the sky above was infused with delicate pinks.

I walked towards the Peter Osgood statue, and did my best to capture a little bit of everything.

Peter Osgood and the Chelsea flag atop the stand. Peter Osgood and the list of our trophies. Peter Osgood and a specific image of the 1971 ECWC trophy. Peter Osgood, in profile, against the early evening sky.

The King of Stamford Bridge would have loved a night like this. And it is truly sickening to think that he was taken from us at the relatively early age of fifty-nine. In comparison, Ray Wilkins and Ian Britton were sixty-two when they sadly passed. In my mind, I find this impossible to comprehend. Not only are my three favourite Chelsea players of my childhood (my some margin) no longer with us, but Ossie was taken from us at the earliest age. Of the three, he will always be the elder statesman, the most revered, the most loved, the most iconic, The King.

Fifty-nine.

It’s no age, is it?

It is only five years older than me.

A deep deep sigh.

Our time is so precious.

On some European nights, I make the point of touching one of the boots at the base of the statue. It’s not a strong superstition, sometimes I forget.

On this night, I didn’t.

Inside the stadium, it took a while to fill. Over in the away section, there were very few Valencia fans inside. They surely brought more in 2006/7, 2007/8 and 2011/12.

Ah, that season…

By kick-off time, the stadium was full to capacity. These CL group phase tickets are just £35. That’s great value, eh?

In the pub beforehand, though, Andy from Nuneaton and I had briefly touched on the demands of midweek football, especially for us that live a hundred miles or more from HQ. Sometimes, with an early start for work the following day dominating our thoughts, I just find myself wanting for the game to end and get home to get some sleep. Not so much on European nights, though. However, I will be honest; next Wednesday’s match against Grimsby Town might be one of those occasions.

The team was announced; it was the team that had started the second-half against Wolves on Saturday.

Arrizabalaga.

Christensen – Zouma – Tomori

Azpilicueta – Jorginho – Kovacic – Alonso

Willian – Abraham – Mount

This was an eight o’clock kick-off, and with a few minutes remaining, the players appeared on the TV screens, massing in the tunnel. Then, the iconic walk across the Stamford Bridge pitch, past the billowing circular black and white Champions League banner, and across to the West Stand. A slight pause, and then the Champions League anthem.

Chelsea were indeed back.

Hearing the familiar anthem, I am unashamed to admit, caused me to feel a surprisingly warm tingle. It surprised me because many see the Champions League as the epitome of the way that money has won out in this magical game of ours, and that this possibly cheesy and overly-dramatic anthem is a step too far. But it genuinely moved me. One word kept entering my thoughts.

“Barcelona.”

No European team has played us more over the past twenty years. No team has been at the centre of more drama. The anthem takes me back to 2000, to 2005, to 2009, to 2012 and to 2018, our last tie in this competition. I thought of Terry, of Iniesta, of Drogba and shuddered again.

The game began.

I turned to Alan.

“Just weird that Joaquin isn’t playing.”

It seemed that in every game against Spanish opposition not involving Barcelona featured the well-travelled winger. He played against us for Real Betis in 2005/6 and against us for Valencia in 2006/7 and in 2007/8. He even showed up at Stamford Bridge in 2015 in the colours of Fiorentina in that pre-season friendly (Marcos Alonso played too).

But no Joaquin.

Not even on the bench.

Just before the kick-off, and for a few moments, maybe twenty seconds in total, Tammy Abraham stood waiting for the whistle. He was loudly serenaded by the Stamford Bridge crowd. Wearing the famous number nine shirt that Peter Osgood wore with distinction in his two spells with the club, I wondered what was going through his mind. With seven goals to his name already this season, and fresh from his three-goal haul at Wolves, his confidence must have been pinky-blue sky high. And here he was, about to kick-off his first ever Champions League game.

What a time to be alive, Tammy Abraham.

At eight o’clock, Tammy kicked the ball towards the Matthew Harding and we were off and running.

We dominated – utterly – the first twenty minutes. The visitors – in the traditional white shirts and black shorts with the distinctive red, yellow and Batman black badge – hardly entered our half. There was early concern when Mason Mount was fouled and looked in pain. He tried his best to continue, but the foul by former Arsenal Goon Francis Coquelin proved too much. He fell to the floor again and was replaced by Pedro who took position out wide.

We dominated the play but did not create a great deal. There was a fine move down our right and a tight cross from Azpilicueta that Abraham met at the near post. We often played the diagonal to Alonso. Another quality Azpilicueta to Abraham cross amounted to nothing. We were lucky when a rare Valencia attack resulted in a low shot that was blocked by another Valencia player. We kept chipping away at them. It was Willian who managed our best efforts on goal. On the half hour, he twisted in and out of space and ran centrally and quickly but slashed a shot narrowly wide. Later, Kovacic spotted Willian’s run with a sublime ball from deep. The Brazilian chested the ball magnificently but his rushed shot was well over. There were occasions when Willian elected to pass out wide rather than shoot, but he was our main attacking threat. As the first-half drew to a close the last of his three efforts on goal produced a fine save at the near post from Jasper Cillesson in the Valencia goal.

We had most definitely dominated the first-half. Our 60% possession told that story. But Tammy had not received the best of service throughout the half. Our crosses, with a couple of exceptions, had been poor, often rushed and lazy.

I remember my games master – Mr. Ward, a Stokie who was on the books of Stoke City until a leg-break – once lambasted me, as a winger, for a lazy cross and I wondered what he meant. It soon struck home. It meant that I didn’t focus on the options, on the team mate running into space, on the best course of action. I guess that I simply looped it in. I was hurt that I was being castigated for a key part of my game but I hope I learned from it. It is a phrase that has stuck with me to this day.

At nine o’clock, the players reassembled.

Alas, as against Leicester City and Sheffield United, there was a familiar second-half story about to unravel before our eyes.

The atmosphere had been far from red hot throughout the first-half and the noise faded away during the opening moments of the second period as the away team, attacking The Shed, eased themselves more and more into the game. Everyone was sensing that we were defending deeper, and looking uncomfortable in possession. Rather than produce an invigorating and noisy backdrop in which our players would be lifted and taken to another level, we collectively sat back and became as nervous as the players.

There were only one or two occasions when we decided to get it going with our standard “COME ON CHELSEA” battle cry.

Not good enough.

Ten minutes in, a short corner resulted in a shot from Kevin – Kevin? – Gameiro flashed narrowly over from the edge of the box. On sixty-one minutes, Willian and Alonso stood over a free-kick. We were all expecting Alonso to flip the ball high and arch it over the wall. Instead, he struck a low drive which the Valencia ‘keeper scrambled away with a late dive at his left-hand post. Our chances then almost dried up. Tammy was isolated throughout the half. We rarely attacked with any cohesion. How we missed Eden Hazard down below us.

On seventy minutes, Frank Lampard bravely replaced Kurt Zouma with Olivier Giroud, switching to four at the back and paying with two upfront.

Just after, a silly challenge by Kovacic gave the visitors a free-kick from a central position. There was a smart run into space by Rodrigo and the ball was played perfectly to him. His snappy finish left us in complete silence. All ten Valencia outfield players raced over to celebrate in front of the three hundred away fans.

Our reply was immediate.

“Come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea, come on Chelsea.”

In reality, only a fine effort from Giroud – creating space and moving the ball neatly – bothered the Valencia goal. They were now defending deep and space was at a premium. Very often an outstretched leg would stop a pass from reaching its destination.

With ten minutes to go, Ross Barkley replaced Mateo Kovacic.

On eighty-three minutes, a corner from Willian was met with a leap from Fikayo Tomori. I photographed the downward header and did not cleanly see what happened next. There was an appeal for handball, although neither Alan nor I were sure.

Sections of the home crowd began shouting “VAR, VAR” and a little part of me died.

I saw JD shake his head.

After a slight delay, it was announced that VAR was in operation.

We waited.

And waited.

And waited.

No decision.

The referee then sprinted over to watch a replay, and another replay, and another replay, on a TV screen which was on some sort of contraption in front the West Stand. Evidently, a team of experts locked away in a room in Nyon in Switzerland, or somewhere, could not decide, so it was back to the referee who had been standing around ten yards from the initial incident.

Alan : “Surely, if there is any doubt whatsoever, there should be no penalty.”

Chris : “Agreed. 100%.”

After what seemed like an ice age, the referee pointed to the spot.

For the first time that I can ever remember, I did not celebrate a Chelsea penalty. I looked at Alan and our expressions mirrored the opinions of each other.

“Good grief.”

Ross Barkley took the penalty after a considerable wait. His shot clipped the top of the bar and the ball flew into the stand.

Bollocks.

It was not to be.

We don’t lose many European home games, do we?

Lazio, Besiktas, Barcelona, Internazionale, Manchester United, Basle, Atletico Madrid, PSG, Valencia.

Nine.

I have seen them all, damn it. But it is a fantastic record, eh? I alone have seen ninety-nine European games at home from 1994 to 2020. And the complete record is just nine defeats out of one hundred and twenty-two games at Stamford Bridge in all UEFA games. That’s OK with me. It is a stunning run of numbers.

But, records aside, we have done ourselves no favours and this group phase will be – now – doubly difficult to escape from.

I whispered to JD as we trudged down the Fulham Road, “Gdansk is lovely in May.”

There was talk at the start of this week that the three games against Wolves, Valencia and Liverpool will be very testing.

Liverpool is next.

See you on Sunday.

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