Date:Wednesday September 29 2010
In the Champions League Group stages, results are what counts, and Chelsea made it two wins from two with a scoreline against Olympique Marseille that doesn`t tell how this game played out.
Without Frank Lampard, still recovering from the longest injury in his Chelsea career, and with Didier Drogba suspended against his former club, Carlo Ancelotti fielded a side filled with attacking intent. Gael Kakuta was handed a first start in a meaningful contest, Yuri Zhirkov was part of an attack that was spearheaded by Nicolas Anelka with Florent Malouda in support. The only two 'natural` central midfielders were Mikel and Essien, although Malouda had the intelligence to adapt his role to a more central distributive role. Ramires was dropped to the bench after his stuttering display at the weekend.
Chelsea started brightly and with intent, and after only seven minutes found themselves ahead from a set piece: Kakuta, on corner duties, curled his ball in to John Terry. With the visitors presumably watching JT`s head, the captain flicked home from a difficult angle.
The early goal gave hope to the fans that Chelsea would be returning to high-scoring adventures of barely a few weeks ago, sustained attacks followed. When Marseille had the ball, however, they offered little. Ex-Manchester United fullback Gabriel Heinz was booed mercilessly, and though he had truckloads more in experience and height to Kakuta, the diminutive French 19 year-old was hardly troubled by the Argentine. Nevertheless, Chelsea`s offensive play was strangely blunted. They were handed a lucky break when Stéphane Mbia conceded a penalty after not even half an hour for handball. It was a harsh decision from the Belgian referee, applying the letter of the law although there was little hint of intent in Mbia`s contact. Nicolas Anelka took the spot-kick, his first since THAT night in Moscow. Marseille`s keeper, Steve Mandanda, barely moved to try to stop it.
2-0 up against a team that were no slouches (and with an impeccable history and pedigree) was, in fact, flattering to Chelsea. Marseille`s shoulders did not drop and they went forward with little to lose. Even if Chelsea were equal to Marseille`s counters, it was courtesy of a lacking final product from OM that the scoreline didn`t change. More clinical finishing could have sunk Chelsea.
Whatever Marseille coach Didier Deschamps told his lads at half-time, he had some effect. The second half saw a disjointed Chelsea leaving their hunger in the dressing room as Marseille went for it. Deschamps had done his homework and realised Chelsea`s vulnerabilities; a couple of counter-attacks, had they been driven by a more clinical finisher (like Carlos Tevez) would have been slotted away. On other occasions, Alex`s sliding tackles were required, and many of us had flashbacks of Frannk Leboeuf. Petr Cech, who had been under-used in the first half, was by far the busier keeper in the second. And he was lucky that Marseille`s accuracy didn`t match their enthusiasm.
And yet, if anything, Chelsea were more likely to increase the scoreline: from a good 40 metres out, a thunderous Alex free-kick crashed into the right post; for balance, Michael Essien then hit the left woodwork. The Chelsea fans were not happy at this nervy display, and Carlo Ancelotti seemed resigned to consolidate what he had, Kakuta coming off for Ramires. For the French youngster, it had been an encouraging display: confident runs, a desire for the ball, no qualms about taking on the opposition. All the opposite of Ramires, Carlo Ancelotti`s star signing of the summer. The Brazilian seems in need of confidence, coming out second best in challenges and fluffing the easiest of passes that are expected of a holding midfielder. Whether he will have obtained much confidence from this outing can be discussed: he did make a number of runs, moving outside his zone, but needs to consolidate the basics of his job description, i.e. the low-lying midfielder, before moving forward.
Daniel Sturridge was next onto the pitch, replacing Zhirkov. Had he got onto the end of one of Ashley Cole`s trademark forays, followed by excellent slanting crosses through the opposition defence`s zone of uncertainty, Chelsea could have increased their lead. Finally it was Josh McEachran`s turn, the highly-rated 17 year-old making his Champions League debut, the next step in an extremely rapid promotion (albeit for barely 5 minutes on the pitch).
Chelsea ended the game at least shaking off the torpor that had dismayed the fans for much of the second half. Marseille for much of the second half, were the more likely to score in intention at least. Their defending was very high, as if they were throwing everything at obtaining something from the game.
Chelsea, on the other hand, can consider this a competent scoreline that doesn`t dispel some of the unease generated from the Manchester City match. At times, Chelsea seemed to succumb to Arsenal`s disease: over-elaborating the ball in an effort to pass it into the net, rather than taking chances on instinct. Nicolas Anelka`s hold-up play was elegant, as always, although we were often left despairing that he didn`t take his chances rather than waiting for someone else to arrive into the area, who would invariably be a Marseille defender.
Kakuta`s display suggests that he is a youngster genuinely ready for the first team, and Petr Cech, often giving an air of uncertainty, was very assured throughout the match. Mikel`s elevation is continuing as a real central lynchpin, whereas Michael Essien looked as if he would intercept the ball, turn on a sixpence and drive forward for the whole night long. These are the positives. We can also applaud that Ancelotti seems sincerely committed to our youngsters.
We also have to highlight that we desperately missed Didier Drogba, if not as a battering ram through the centre, at least to draw out the Marseille defenders, who were disciplined throughout. Salomon Kalou might also have been useful for such a match, given his uncanny knack to compensate for fluffed chances throughout most of the game by at least slotting away his first opportunity. These can, and will, change over the coming weeks: Drogba served out the last of his annual UEFA suspension for this game, and will be available for the weekend`s visit of his favourite whipping boys, Arsenal.
On the other hand, we have to point out that Chelsea`s chances came mainly through set pieces, they were a lot less troubling in open play. Gone, also, is the single-minded determination to put the ball away for 90 whole minutes, with a substantial patch after the second-half kick-off seeing Chelsea very much the second-best side.
In other circumstances, with a helpful Champions League win under our belt, these would be but quibbles. However, the Manchester City defeat has left open the charge that Chelsea`s great start to the season has been courtesy of favourable results against easy opposition. Little that we saw last night has dispelled that doubt, with no disrespect to a Marseille side who will feel hard done by at the final whistle. Their fans, singing throughout the 90 minutes (and joyous in West London before and after the game) were a credit to their side. Referee Frank De Bleekhere arbitrated the match in a way that many of us would have liked to see in previous Champions League outings: under-stated and almost invisible. Unlike so many of his counterparts, he didn`t labour under his pedantry, allowing the game to flow, often playing the advantage and then pointing back to a foul, so as not to slice up the match. "Where were you against Barça" is what the crowd called when he attributed a soft penalty. At least he erred in our favour. For once.
Also on a UEFA riff, the presence of officials on the backline was welcome. At one point, the new linesmen were called upon to determine whether a goalmouth scramble had seen the ball cross the line. It was not close, but had it been, we can feel confident it would be correctly called.
Next up in the Champions League is the double-header against Moscow, when Chelsea will welcome back Didier Drogba and (hopefully) Frank Lampard. Beforehand we can look forward to welcoming Arsenal to Stamford Bridge on the weekend.
Date:Wednesday September 29 2010
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