Will Chelsea lose their Prem handle?
Everyone has his own definition of hell. For Jean-Paul Sartre, it was other people. For Kim Kardashian, it's being ignored. My personal inferno is being surrounded by a bouncing mob of delirious, beer-drenched, kitted-out Chelsea fans raising their voices to the heavens in praise of Him.
No, not the Special One. Worse. The Revolting One.
"His name is John Terry and he's the leader of our team / The greatest team in England that the world has ever seen."
Now it would be one thing if this crowd were exalting Terry for, say, scoring the decisive penalty in a Champions League final. The boisterous celebration at New York's Football Factory still would have been hard to stomach, but at least I would have understood the sentiment. On Saturday, however, all Terry did was to hurl himself feet first into the Everton goal mouth (bravely, of course) in the 92nd minute and get the faintest of touches on Frank Lampard's free kick.
Or did he? I've watched the replay a half-dozen times and if Terry made contact with the ball, it was invisible to the human eye. It looked as if a diving Tim Howard simply palmed the ball into his own net when he glimpsed an airborne Terry trying to do his best Scott Cousins-about-to-poleax-Buster-Posey-at-home-plate impression.
But there was no question as to who claimed the goal. With the muscles in his neck throbbing like Wayne Bridge when he found out his woman was hooking up with his teammate, Terry leaped with defiant joy in front of the adoring Stamford Bridge faithful, who unlike other human beings on earth still consider their captain to be a human being.
Never mind that, as Everton manager Roberto Martinez put it, Chelsea had used "every trick in the book" to win the dubious free kick that resulted in the Blues extending their unbeaten home streak to 74 matches and solidifying their league-leading position -- one point ahead of Arsenal and three in front of Manchester City, who have a game in hand.
(Despite Liverpool's 4-3 defensive master class over Swansea that kept the Reds four points off the pace and Brendan Rodgers' delusional comment that "we're as good as any of the English sides in the Champions League," I refuse to accept that they are a serious title contender. Any team with Martin Skrtel at the heart of the defense is doomed.)
I suppose that at this time of year, all that matters is the three points and that the mark of championship-worthy teams is to pull out a win even when they are not playing well. But even Jose Mourinho knows that Chelsea will not get the rub of the green when the Blues descend into their own circle of soccer hell on Wednesday -- Istanbul's Turk Telekom Arena -- to play Galatasaray in the Champions League round of 16.
Instead of friendly calls from Lee Probert, Chelsea will be greeted by flares, firecrackers, spitting fans and riot police. And that's just at their hotel.
"We know from our game there in 1999 what to expect," said Mike Neat, president of the New York Blues, who along with three of his fellow intrepid Chelsea fanatics was leaving for Istanbul after the Everton match. "It will be a hostile atmosphere but Chelsea is providing a bus to take us right to the gate and we have enough common sense not to wear our kits. I mean, you wouldn't wear red to Stamford Bridge unless you wanted to get your a-- kicked."
I didn't want to quibble, but since when is Stamford Bridge a cauldron of hooliganism? The scariest thing that happens there is the prawn sandwiches don't have enough mayonnaise. As it happened, I wore red on Saturday to see how Arsenal and Man City's Champions League hangovers would affect their league matches against Sunderland and Stoke, respectively.
Neither of those Prem powerhouses has ever been mentioned in the same sentence with Bayern Munich and Barcelona, the teams that inflicted mid-week psychological damage on the Gunners and Sky Blues by the identical scores of 2-0. Judging by their effortless 4-1 romp over the Black Cats, Arsenal seems to have exorcised their CL demons a bit more easily than City, which struggled to eke out a 1-0 win over Stoke.
I have to admit that I was anxious about what kind of collective response the Gunners would produce after the hugely deflating defeat to Bayern. And I was even more worried about the individual reaction of a certain $65 million German playmaker who's recently had everything but the flavor of the meat pies at the Emirates blamed on him.
That last concern became moot as Arsene Wenger left Mesut Ozil out of the squad for Saturday's game. The official reason was a thigh injury, but perhaps Wenger didn't think Ozil was needed when Arsenal had Dennis Bergkamp on the pitch.
How great was it to see the non-flying Dutchman back at the Emirates for the unveiling of his bronze statue? (No? Was I the only one misting up?) In his speech, Bergkamp thanked the fans for their patience during the less-than-awe-inspiring beginning to his Arsenal career, one that culminated with his winning seven major trophies. (Whatever those are.)
"In the first six or seven games, a lot of people asked, 'Is he good or not? Can he do it?' We had some comments from chairmen of other clubs in London, I won't mention the names!" he said.
"We proved them all wrong and are where we are now, and it is all down to the fans because you had belief in me, in the team, so this is how it ends with a beautiful statue." Will it end that way for Ozil too? Or will the fans who value work ethic and fighting spirit over ludicrous skill fail to embrace him?
There are some telling similarities between the two virtuosos. Like Ozil, Bergkamp was an untrustworthy penalty taker. (What Arsenal fan will ever forget his miss against Manchester United in the 1999 FA Cup semifinal replay that ended with Ryan Giggs' heartbreaking 60-yard run to glory in extra time?)
Also, Wenger would often substitute Bergkamp in the 70th minute so as not to wear him out, and he would be wise to do the same with Ozil. Stamina is not necessarily allied to genius. In Ozil's absence on Saturday, the pressure to produce a statement game was on the chiseled shoulders of Olivier Giroud, who had been benched for the past two matches -- including Bayern -- in the wake of tabloid revelations that revealed his bikini line.
I can certainly see why Wenger would feel the need to discipline Giroud for his nocturnal shenanigans, but wasn't there a more propitious time to exert his authority than against the best team in Europe? Why diminish your own chances for success by dropping your most reliable goal scorer for the league's second-best Yaya, Sanogo?
Restored to the starting lineup against Sunderland, Giroud took all of five minutes to burst out of Wenger's maison de chien and score the first of his two opportunistic finishes. The Frenchman now has 18 goals on the season, a not-too-shabby total given the amount of criticism he gets for his profligacy in front of net. Giroud also provided the final layoff in a vintage Arsenal one-touch passing sequence reminiscent of those gasp-inducing Bergkamp-Robert Pires-Thierry Henry moves. (Sorry, I just teared up again.) This one was both started and finished by the silky Czech Tomas Rosicky, who sprinted onto Giroud's flick and clipped the ball over the former Arsenal keeper Vito Mannone.
The Gunners' free-flowing goal-fest stood in stark contrast to the plodding attacking demonstration that Man City put on at their once ridiculously high-scoring stadium where they dropped six on both Tottenham and Arsenal earlier this season; seven against Norwich. Of course, that was before Sergio Aguero went down with a hamstring injury that has kept him sidelined for the past month. Without their 26-goals-in-25-games Argentine hit man, City has been forced to depend on a woefully erratic strike trident of Alvaro Negredo, Edin Dzeko and Stefan "Knees of Glass" Jovetic.
Of the three, the 6-foot-6 Dzeko, one of the heroes of City's 2011-12 title-winning side, has been the worst culprit, showing all the touch of a cement block in front of goal. Presented with a simple tap-in against Stoke, the Bosnian whiffed on it and in frustration launched a Cantona-worthy kung fu kick at the goalpost. The wonder of it is he didn't miss the woodwork.
A 70th-minute goal by Yaya Toure spared City the ignominy of a third consecutive league game without a goal, but this was hardly a convincing performance for a team that has long been the presumptive favorites to capture the title. Aguero is expected to return next weekend for the Capital One Cup final against an overmatched Sunderland, but more formidable challenges loom in the form of away Prem games with Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool -- not to mention another date with Barcelona in the Champions League.
In other words, like Arsenal, City is hoping that Chelsea's trip to the banks of the Bosphorous leaves Mourinho's "little ponies" stumbling down the homestretch of the Prem race. And if anyone is capable of knocking Chelsea's season off its stride, it's their old human battering ram Didier Drogba. The Ivorian enjoyed a glittering, trophy-laden career at Stamford Bridge, including scoring the decisive penalty against Bayern Munich in the 2012 Champions League final. He'll be 36 by the time he returns to the Bridge for the second leg of the tie and though the years have robbed him of his dynamism and pace, he is still a ruthless assasin in front of goal.
In fact, you get the feeling that Mourinho would swap all three of his useless strikers -- Samuel Eto'o, Fernando Torres and Demba Ba -- for the Drog. "He's still good, still a threat," Mourinho said. "He was at Galatasaray when Real Madrid played them last season. We [Real Madrid] lost in Istanbul."
Just before Mike Neat and his Istanbul-bound New York Blues left the bar, I asked them if they were worried that King Didier might come back to haunt his old club.
"We have a lot of respect for Didier," Neat said, "but once the game starts we'll boo him like we would anyone else."
Just not too loudly.