Chelsea vs.Southampton : 18 February 2023.
With our trip to Dortmund seemingly just hours behind us, the home game against bottom-placed Southampton soon arrived. On the drive up to London, the Famous Four were augmented by the appearance of Glenn who was taking Clive’s ticket and there were mainly positive thoughts from Germany. As for the game with the Saints, I was of the opinion that while we often talk about “must win games” this surely was going to be a match that Chelsea would win.
And a phrase that I saw more than a few times on social media was one that mentioned us eventually “clicking.”
Against Southampton, I too was hoping that we would finally click.
There were no ifs and buts. No perhaps. No maybe.
We would win this game.
Admittedly, our spending spree in the January transfer window had increasingly resembled a footballing version of “Supermarket Sweep” with players being flung into a shopping trolley by anyone remotely connected to Chelsea Football Club. At the final buzzer – “where do you think you are going Ziyech?” – there was a final reckoning.
“Who bought this bloke? Who is he?”
However, all of our monies and vouchers had been exchanged. We now hoped that Graham Potter would be able to concoct a palatable recipe after being presented with his new ingredients in a mystery bag of treats that reminded me of a football edition of “Ready Steady Cook.”
There had certainly been hints of things simmering along nicely, of a brighter future after a slight upturn against Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund, if not against Fulham and West Ham. We were certainly stirred by the very recent return of our trusty full-backs Chilwell and James and the burgeoning relationship between Silva and Badiashile, and our hopes were increased by the presence of the new playmaker Fernandez, the speed merchants Mudryk and Madueke and the light-footed attacker Felix.
Southampton, who had beaten us on a horrible night in late August, would surely be put to the sword?
“Fuck me, we have to win this one, lads.”
The pre-match routine – home to café to pub to stadium – had been disrupted by the sad, if not surprising, news that the body of Christian Atsu had eventually been located in Turkey. Our former player was one of thousands who had perished in the series of earthquakes that recently hit that country. I tried to remember if I had ever seen him play for us. I am sure I that I hadn’t. I had, of course, seen him play against us for Newcastle United on a few occasions.
I was in the stadium early and couldn’t resist a few pre-game photos as the spectators slowly arrived.
I spotted three young lads appear down to my right in the West Lower, all wearing distinctive River Plate jerseys – white with a red sash – and one of them had draped an Argentina flag over his shoulders. I sent my two friends in Buenos Aires – both River supporters – a message and they were impressed. The three lads made their way down towards the Shed End but I eventually lost sight of them. In the ‘eighties, when it was so rare to be able to get hold of authentic foreign club jerseys, it was de rigueur to wear them at domestic football. My cotton Robe di Kappa Juventus shirt from 1985 made it to Stamford Bridge once or twice. It’s very rare to see foreign jerseys at Stamford Bridge today; I am sure these three lads would be given a free pass on this occasion.
Graham Potter’s team selection was a little surprising.
Azpilicueta – Koulibaly – Badiashile – Chilwell
Madueke – Kovacic – Fernandez
Felix – Fofana – Mount
Blur’s “Song 2” and Harry James All-Stars “The Liquidator.”
The players entered the Stamford Bridge pitch and then stood at the centre circle as we remembered Christian Atsu.
The game began with us attacking the Shed End, or rather with Saints attacking the Matthew Harding; they easily had the better of the first fifteen minutes. Benoit Badiashile made a mess of a clearance but thankfully Kepa Arrizabalaga was on hand to block a low shot by Kamaldeen Sulemana. They followed this up with an effort that Kalidou Koulibaly blocked. Paul Onuachu, whose limbs reached Crouch-like proportions, was causing us problems with his physicality and determination. He went close with a header.
On eleven minutes, Noni Madueke enjoyed a run into the box but his low shot zipped across the face of the goal and the Southampton ‘keeper Gavin Bazunu saved. Soon after, there was a spritely spin and shot from David Datro Fofana but he could only ripple the outside of the side netting.
I was surprised that Fofana was seemingly deployed out on the left for parts of the first period.
With half of the first-half gone, the atmosphere inside Stamford Bridge was absolutely shocking.
We were very disjointed and struggled to piece anything together. The good performance in Dortmund just three days earlier seemed light years away but of course this was a pretty different team with five new starters in Potter’s team selection.
On the drive to London, I had quipped “who are our main rivals playing today?” and I then added “Brentford and Fulham” and it very much seemed that we were only in a battle to finish as West London’s top team. Even at this stage of the season, we don’t appear to be able to rise too much further up the table. Are we really destined for a tenth place finish, mirroring that of the anti-climactic 2015/16 one?
The Southampton players, without a permanent manager, were helping to add to the ugly nature of this game by going down injured with a dull regularity. However, when they had the ball, they appeared to have belief in what they were doing. In contrast, we looked bereft of ideas.
“Oh When The Saints…”
On the half-hour mark, there was a fine zipped cross into the danger area from Ben Chilwell, but Fofana arrived too late to apply the final stab at goal.
Dave was the next Chelsea player to ripple the side netting.
At last, we enjoyed our best, brief, spell of the game. A decent move, a shot from Enzo, a cross from Dave but again just out of reach for Fofana. There was a daisy-cutter from Fofana but this was hit straight at Bazunu.
Then, alas, a clumsy tackle from Dave on Stuart Armstrong in a dangerous position. Step forward James Ward-Prowse, and his Exocet-launcher of a right foot. I took a ‘photo of our defensive wall, with Mateo Kovacic lying on the pitch to block a low drive. Ward-Prowse must have laughed at such a suggestion. His perfect delivery flew high past everyone and lodged inside the net.
The away fans roared and the scorer raced down towards the far corner of The Shed as if he had scored a last minute winner in a Cup Final.
There were audible boos at the half-time whistle.
I was just silent and sad, and wondered if we could ever get back into the game. It was a very poor half from us. There was little fight and no real pattern to our play. An altogether rotten show. I didn’t glance over at the side-lines to often but the manager always seemed so passive. There seemed to be no fire inside him.
“All our players are threes and fours, nothing more. Kovacic is especially poor, eh?”
At the break, Raheem Sterling – almost a forgotten man of late – replaced one Fofana while Koulibaly made way for the other.
Welcome back Wesley.
Sterling began the half on the left, right down in front of us in The Sleepy Hollow, and looked immediately dangerous. With the refiguring of our attack, though, Mount played more centrally and an early cross from Sterling just evaded Mount’s leap.
Five minutes into the second half, fifty minutes into the game, I noted the first stadium-wide chant of the entire match.
Just not good enough everyone. We are hardly carefree when it takes us fifty minutes to support the lads on the pitch. Must do better.
Soon after, a swivel and a shot from Dave, but wide.
Thankfully, the atmosphere improved on the hour, but this was hardly a wall of noise. There were more substitutions a little later.
Kai Havertz for Mount.
Mykhailo Mudryk for Madueke.
With that, Mudryk appeared down below us, forcing Sterling over to the right. Not long after, Sterling dribbled past two defenders and slipped the ball to Havertz, who returned the ball to Sterling. Sadly, his shot was blocked, rather fortuitously, by Ainsley Maitland-Niles. This was the chance that we needed but we fluffed it.
The whole stadium groaned.
Just moments after, the ball was pushed up towards Havertz on our left and the German did well to hold off a challenge. His perfect cross was met by Sterling’s header after he drifted away from a defender. This effort was miraculously blocked on the line and the same player stabbed the rebound goal wards but another defender forced the ball to blaze over. Another golden chance, fluffed.
The visitors worked a fine move down their right and Theo Walcott, who used to be a footballer, whipped in a cross that Armstrong really should have eaten up. Kepa blocked well.
From the corner, with the ball bobbling around our box, Selou Mara attempted an audacious side volley but slammed his right foot right into Dave’s face. There was immediate concern for our captain’s health. I had visions of the toe of a boot hitting him in the eye. After a very long wait, he was stretchered off to loud applause. The whole stadium stood.
“We’ll just call you Dave.”
He was replaced by Trevoh Chalobah, another forgotten man.
At the same time, Conor Gallagher replaced Ben Chilwell, our sixth substitute of the day.
Twelve minutes of extra time were signalled.
A shot from Gallagher was saved by a hand from Bazunu after Chelsea pressure from a Felix free-kick. A one-on-one break from Southampton was thankfully snubbed out by a last-ditch tackle from Kovacic. A last minute whipped volley from Mudryk zipped past the post.
It was not to be.
Southampton had done the double over us.
There were more boos, louder now, as the referee blew.
A pet hate, booming music at the final whistle. When we lose, we don’t want that. We just want silence.
For fuck sake.
As I left The Sleepy Hollow, I glanced over at the away end, and remnants of red smoke were drifting over the away supporters.
I wondered what the three River Plate supporters made of the match. With Southampton playing in a white shirt with one broad red stripe, I suspect that they acknowledged the irony of it.
As I walked back to the car, everyone was bubbling with frustration, bewilderment and anger. Whereas many had been previously prepared to give Graham Potter time, this meek defeat to a lowly Southampton team might well have changed many opinions. I sensed this as I left Stamford Bridge.
I have never been one to want managers to be ousted after relatively short tenures. I was never a fan of our slash and burn methodology under Roman Abramovich despite the ridiculous success that it brought. But those days are gone and there are new owners in control of our club.
Where now Chelsea Football Club? What now Graham Potter?
Is this season a write-off? Are we going to be treading water until May? Is tenth place our lot? Or are there even darker days ahead? I sense that this will all get a little worse before it gets better, but that is just a gut feeling.
Next up, a derby at Tottenham and I, among many, are fucking dreading it.
See you up the High Road on Sunday.