AVB fails as football takes centre stage
After a morning of blood-letting came a London derby to remind why, despite everything, we love football. Plenty of ebb and flow plus quality finishing made this a lunchtime to remember after a breakfast of bitter taste.
The spectre of John Terry - whereabouts unknown - hovered. The last word in the 'Captain, Leader, Legend' motto that adorns the Shed End at Stamford Bridge is now tarnished, so much so such that Bruce Buck and Ron Gourlay, two of Roman Abramovich's most-trusted aides, had to conduct an hour-long morning radio interview to eventually apologise for the Anton Ferdinand affair. Terry is yet to extend such an apology to the Ferdinand family. Breath is not being held.
That such a PR drive is too little, too late is hard to deny. Andre Villas-Boas' suggestion that the incident at Loftus Road had hastened his own demise at Chelsea was subjective at best, but as we approach its anniversary, it continues to emit a stink. Football's attitude to racism must steer clear of self-interest if it is to progress beyond mere tokenism. Perhaps Chelsea's mea culpa, delayed as it was, is a step in the right direction.
Terry's retention of the captaincy was a board decision, but one that makes Roberto Di Matteo's job easier. "The board made our decision and I support that," said Di Matteo, who next suggested he would have accepted Terry being stripped of the armband. "I would have respected their decision. Ultimately, they are the board and make decisions in the best interests of the club."
While the corporate view is one of qualified contrition, Chelsea's fans are only too happy to support their captain. That said, Spurs' support often played the provocateur. Football fan culture remains riddled with tit-for-tat; two wrongs will ever make a right. Thankfully, matters on the field diverted from the enmity. Such sub-plots were forgotten until the match was done. One of them had been Villas-Boas' vengeance on a club where he had unfinished business. He was unable to exact it.
Shorn of expectant father Gareth Bale, and with no Mousa Dembele after he was injured in midweek when playing for Belgium, Villas-Boas' chance of victory looked lost before the game began, even allowing for Terry's absence. Hopes were raised by a second-half brace, but Tottenham eventually paid for frailties against a team looking more suited to their status of champions of Europe than they did when lifting the crown.
Chelsea had marked defensive weakness of their own - Terry was missed in that regard - but were bailed out by a quality of player they did not have last season. When they clicked, Villas-Boas' new team were unable to match the new incarnation of his former club.
"The game was won by individual brilliance from Oscar, (Eden) Hazard and (Juan) Mata who were exceptional today," Villas-Boas said. "The characteristic of this game was how frenetic it was. The amount of intensity was a problem. Calming a game down of this level is difficult."
As kick-off loomed, 'AVB' had shared many a salutation with his old colleagues, including a very firm handshake with Frank Lampard - benched, somewhat ironically. The greeting with Roberto Di Matteo was less warm, but polite. One of London's keener rivalries could commence, and when the deadlock was broken at what Chelsea fans once mockingly called 'Three Points Lane', though this was their first win here since 2005, it was through a player taking Terry's place, bought in the final weeks of the AVB regime.
Gary Cahill's goal resulted from loose play from William Gallas, but the venom the volley contained rendered it unstoppable for Brad Friedel. It was the type of technique that Chelsea expect from their trio of playmakers, even perhaps from Fernando Torres, but not a centre-back. One of that trio, Mata, might have doubled the lead when snatching at a rebound after Friedel could only palm away his shot, but that miss preceded a spell of Spurs pressure in which Jermain Defoe had a cross/shot headed off the line by Ashley Cole. John Obi Mikel was then hugely brave in throwing his entire form in front of a Clint Dempsey shot. Before that, Spurs had looked disjointed, enforced changes robbing them of their recent fluency.
Spurs' equaliser, in the first minute of the second half, was almost a mirror image of what happened in the opening moments of the first. Slack Chelsea marking allowed Jan Vertonghen to hook in a ball and Gallas to stumble it home. In the first minute, Gallas had slashed wide. Both chances came from Gylfi Sigurdsson's precise crossing from dead balls.
These days, AVB's jack-in-the-box activities take second fiddle to the hyperactive touchline presence of Steffen Freund, whose teutonic punk-style pogo-ing make him unavoidable. The German assistant coach was to be found cavorting wildly when Defoe placed Spurs in the lead, as Chelsea were caught even colder. Aaron Lennon's overlap onto Dempsey's pass had cut them open. Defoe did the rest, in keeping with his unexpected revival under his new boss.
Spurs had a lead they may not have believed in. They certainly failed to protect it. Their ascendancy was surrendered by loose play, when Mata converted a Gallas error into Chelsea's equaliser. Now it was time for Villas-Boas to prowl the sidelines in worry, and his anxiety was borne out when Mata stabbed a Hazard ball in for his second. Chelsea had exhibited creative quality to dig out a win, while Petr Cech is in excellent form at the other end. Just prior to Sturridge's clinching goal in injury time, Chelsea's keeper had made a wondrous low save to stop a squirming Kyle Walker shot.
"Andre, Andre, what's the score," mocked the Chelsea fans before their current leader acknowledged their reminder that there is indeed "only one Di Matteo". Villas-Boas looked crestfallen on the bench, but eventually raised himself for a hug with his former assistant that was manly enough but still lacked warmth. The revenge mission had failed but the match had been good enough for us to forget, for now, other ills.
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