Chelsea vs. Lille : 10 December 2019.
The fact that PD takes a turn driving to Stamford Bridge for weekday games is a real Godsend. It means that I can have a very welcome snooze if I need it on the way to London, and – most definitely – on the return journey west. On this particular journey to SW6, I managed to crash out for over an hour as P-Diddy battled the rain and traffic. At about 5pm, I emerged from my slumber at around Twickenham. There was a little message from Jaro, now back in the US after his “work” trip last week, waiting for me. He must have been bored because he had worked out that in the previous seven days, the three of us – P-Diddy, Lord Parsnips and little old me – had spent twenty-two hours in cars en route to and from Chelsea games. I must admit it startled me.
Wednesday : Villa at home – six hours.
Saturday : Everton away – ten hours.
Tuesday : Lille at home – six hours.
It all added-up. And I am not honestly sure how I felt. Was it some sort of pride that we had evidently devoted so much of our time to the support of our club, or was there an inkling that we might well take some perverse pleasure out of all of this, or – worse – that this was all too obsessive, and not natural, not healthy, not normal?
Answers on a postcard.
At about 6pm, we eventually made it in to “The Goose.” I made my way to the bar to get the first round in. To my right, quietly standing at the bar, were three lads in their late twenties, evidently Lille supporters, one with a “LOSC” logo on his tracksuit, and another with a scarf hidden from view. There were signs on the pub windows proclaiming “Chelsea fans only” and I had presumed that they had slipped through the net. I whispered “bon chance” to the one standing close to me and ordered some drinks. I had no intention of wanting to drop them in it. My drinks arrived, but just as the last of the three drinks were being handed to the Lille supporters, the landlady caught a glimpse of the red Lille scarf (I suspect that the “LOSC” logo on the other supporter’s top meant nothing to her) and they were politely asked to leave. Damn. I felt for them. I was sure that they were not going to cause one bit of trouble. The place seemed quiet. We chatted to a few friends from our local area – “don’t get caught in the lift this week, Les” – and then headed off to “Simmons”. This little bar seemed quiet too. More beers were ordered, a few more chats with mates, a few more laughs.
I made it inside the stadium with just a couple of minutes to spare, and missed the entrance of the teams and the usual pre-match Champions League rituals. I quickly scanned our team. The big news was that Toni Rudiger was returning.
Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Zouma – Emerson
Kante – Jorginho – Kovacic
Willian – Abraham – Pulisic
We knew that we just – “just” – had to win to secure our safe passage into the first knock-out phase of this season’s Champions League. I think most of us presumed that there would be home wins for Chelsea and Ajax. But Valencia, who beat us on match day one, were no mugs, and were in with a shout of qualifying too. Of course I wanted progression to the final sixteen – it would undoubtedly provide a timely fillip for the players and managers, a lovely confidence boost going into the new year – but if we were to fail, then a potentially longer and arguably more enjoyable tour of fresh cities in the Europa League was not a bad second prize. So; Ajax, Chelsea or Valencia. Who from this little list of three teams would miss out?
The game began and for a few minutes I was mesmerized by the shifting patterns created by the cascading rain against the back-drop of the East Stand. It was a foul night in SW6 alright. I had rarely seen such atrocious conditions at Stamford Bridge. I felt sorry for those in the first few rows. They were going to get soaked. We began well and soon started to slither our way through the Lille defence with Christian Pulisic looking at home on the left-side of our attack. I admitted to Al that he had been surprisingly poor at Everton and it was good to see him showing signs of improvement. Within a few minutes, Rudiger was making strong and sturdy challenges and we were instantly reminded of what we had missed for many weeks.
There was a break in play and I needed to shoot off to see a man about a dog. I was alone with my thoughts in the nearby gents when I heard an increase in noise emanating from inside the stadium. A split second later, a roar and it was clear that we had scored. Over the years, I don’t miss many, though I am sure I missed one earlier this season at home too. I quickly wrote “1-0” on the steamed-up mirror and re-joined Alan and PD in The Sleepy Hollow. Alan explained how Tammy had scored. I was so pleased that our young striker had nabbed another. Excellent. I will be honest, the pressure was off – or so it seemed – and we looked in control for much of the first period. On only rare occasions did the opposing team pose any danger.
The midfield three of Jorginho at the base, and with Kovacic and Kante to the left and right, worked well, and provided the motor for more luxurious play further ahead. I loved how N’Golo Kante sized up his options as a ball became loose and a gullible Lille player looked to lunge in. It seemed that Kante was one, or maybe two or three steps ahead, as he decided to let the other player attempt to win the ball, but then struggle to control it, allowing Kante to pick up the pieces with the minimum of effort. At the same time as all this was happening, he was probably aware of all Chelsea players within a 360-degree sweep of the pitch, of their individual directions of travel, their nearest foe, each of their chances of ably controlling the ball should he decided to pass to them, the wind direction in all parts of the stadium, taking into account localised eddies caused by the juxtaposition of the stands, and he also was thinking ahead to half-time and if he fancied a sports drink, a simple sip of water, or a hot cup of tea, and there were probable thoughts too about how he really needs to master that latest piece of music that his piano teacher has detailed, how he needs to come up with a suitable twist to the end of the first chapter of his first novel and then, of course, there are always Christmas presents which need to be sorted. In the blink of an eye, he passed to Willian, simplicity itself.
I commented to Alan.
“You simply can’t teach that.”
N’Golo is a rare footballing talent, and it is an honour to be able to watch him play every few days. He is already one of our greatest ever players.
It was all Chelsea, and Kepa had rarely touched the ball. We won a corner and Emerson, way down the other end of the pitch, struck a firm ball into the box. It landed right into a juicy few yards of emptiness and Dave arrived with impeccable timing to head it home past a poorly protected Maignan in the Lille goal.
We were 2-0 up.
I caught Dave’s gleeful little trot in front of Parky and Parky’s People in The Shed Lower. We had struck twice in the first-half, had dominated the game, and Lille had not mustered a single shot on goal.
Rousey was quick to chime in :
“See you in Barcelona.”
However, only after this second goal was there a rousing stadium-wide chant from the Chelsea supporters.
Over in The Netherlands, Valencia were – surprisingly – winning one-nought. If it stayed like this, Ajax would be playing in the Europa League in 2020. But it would mean that Chelsea would finish second in the group. We hoped for an Ajax equaliser.
The Second Forty-Five.
The rain had relented, but it was still a wet night. We continued to control the game and a few chances came our way. Pulisic looked lively, a slippery customer on this wet night in London, and his presence in our attack drew applause as he dribbled into the box with ease. A free-kick from Willian was on target but was saved. We kept attacking. At times, Dave’s bursts into the Lille box were astonishing. I think his goal must have possessed him to grab more.
Frank chose to replace the impressive Pulisic with Callum Hudson-Odoi.
“At least the pressure is off him. Often when he comes on as sub, he is expected to change things. Let’s see what he can do.”
Lille replaced their injured ‘keeper.
Michy Batshuayi replaced Tammy.
Our play stagnated.
Lille had – just – began to show a few signs of life in the latter part of the game and they produced a fine move which cut into our right flank, resulting in a pull-back for our former striker Loic Remy to blast high into the net.
It was still 1-0 in Amsterdam.
It was 2-1 in London.
An equaliser for Lille would mean that we would be knocked out of the competition. And so things started to get tense. Mason Mount replaced Kovacic, another great performance from him. There was another rare chance for the visitors, but it did not cause Kepa any worry. At the other end, Michy controlled well, but blazed over. A wild shot from Callum was worse, much worse. In the dying embers of the game, Remy shot meekly at Kepa.
It was over.
The Final Sixteen.
Walking out of the ground, everyone was just relieved. A mate galloped past me.
“Seen who we got?”
Our opponents in the New Year had already been decided; Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Paris St. Germain or Red Bull Leipzig.
It’s a horrible, hated, club but Leipzig please.
Walking down the Fulham Road, I shared a thought on Facebook.
“When we lost our first match at home to Valencia, it seemed that we were in a real group of death. But we are still breathing. We are still living. Let European adventures at the top table continue.”