The Premier League – Saturday 7th February 2009
27th November 2007 was the last time City drew a league game 0-0. It’s ordinarily a result that provokes grumblings of frustration from both sets of fans. Not so at Stamford Bridge as City held one of the world’s richest football – on this occasion, the only discord was from the pitifully spineless and horribly spoiled Chelsea supporters. In the corner of the ground populated by the vibrant Tiger Nation, there was only celebration.
For in the final reckoning, this result may prove as valuable for the change in spirit it’ll engender as for the addition to our points tally. It felt just a little like October again, when City stormed to the upper reaches of the table via some stunning results and stellar performances. No amazing victory this time, but the display was as impressive as any of those.
On a cold afternoon in London – now thankfully open again after the horrific experience of some snow paralysed the place – the Tigers made a single change to the side that was held by West Brom last week as Geovanni replaced the suspended Dancin’ Bernard Mendy. It meant we lined up: Duke; Ricketts, Turner, Zayatte, Dawson; Garcia, Ashbee (c), Marney, Kilbane; Geovanni, Fagan.
On the bench were Myhill, Doyle, France, Halmosi, Hughes, Barmby and Manucho – no place for Folan. For Chelsea, the magnificently-monickered Henrique Hilario replaced Petr Cech, but it was otherwise a largely full-strength side. England internationals Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard and John Terry were on duty alongside their galaxy of expensive foreign imports.
It was John Terry who had the first chance of the game. A Lampard free-kick broke to the England captain with Duke grounded and no defender in immediate proximity, however he somehow scooped the ball over from about three yards, to the crowing delight of the City fans in front of whom this shocking miss was made.
A major relief in just the second minute. Chelsea were unexpectedly doing the bulk of the attacking, although with close to ten minutes gone and City beginning to settle a little, we had our first attempt on goal when Geovanni flashed a shot at goal from outside the area that flew well wide.
Encouraging stuff thus far – Chelsea were controlling possession, but with Ashbee and Marney refusing to let City be trampled through in midfield, our grip on proceedings was fairly secure. Until, that was, we got a little over-confident with twenty minutes on the clock. A corner won at the far end was cleared by Chelsea, mis-controlled by Kilbane in midfield and they broke with terrific pace towards the City goal. It ended up with Quaresma on the City right and he cut towards goal by shooting, but Duke produced an excellent flying save to divert the ball wide.
It was the opening to Chelsea’s best spell of the game, and a few minutes later Alex directed a header from a Lampard corner over the crossbar. A minute later Lampard shaped to shoot in a dangerous position, but a thudding challenge by Ian Ashbee did enough to deflect the ball wide.
We were rocking a little now, but found some relief when a sparkling run by Geovanni saw him cover thirty yards in an instant before being assailed by Ballack just as he entered shooting range. The German international was cautioned; Geovanni’s free-kick was disappointingly off-target.
Back came Chelsea with a free-kick chance of their own, which Ballack took and sent into the side-netting with Duke completely beaten. It was becoming more end-to-end now, with Fagan narrowly missing the goal with a long-range shot before another Chelsea free-kick generously donated by the, shall we say, generous referee Lee Mason was taken by Lampard and blasted into a sensitive part of Kamil Zayatte’s anatomy. After a few moments of deep breathing, he was fit to continue.
As half-time neared and the refrain of “let’s just hold on till the break” swept the stand, City had a great chance to nick the lead. Firstly, a superb cross by Ricketts found Kevin Kilbane, whose header struck the outside of Hilario’s post with the Chelsea keeper beaten. However, we entered the interval with parity achieved, and an improbable point becoming a legitimate target.
What a curious and largely disagreeable place to watch football Chelsea is. It costs £47 to get in, a truly obscene sum of money for a single match. The home fans are astoundingly quiet. Granted, Stamford Bridge doesn’t appear the greatest of grounds for noise to move from one part of the ground to another; but to go ninety minutes without hearing them even once is a new low for the Premier League.
The concourses were familiarly cramped, the prices for refreshments eye-watering, the banners draped at the far end together with the hired flag-wavers to our left looked like a dismal attempt at creating a kind of southern Anfield. It was horribly artificial – but perhaps some clubs like that sort of thing. At least the stewards left us alone.
Chelsea’s title challenge has been repeatedly undermined by dropping points at home, and as they trooped out for the second half a sense of déjà vu almost seemed to be settling upon them. On the other hand, City came out looking determined to make the most of a solid opening forty-five.
Our captain, as totemic as ever, was cautioned after a few minutes for a foul on Michael Ballack, but we started the half in the ascendancy and fashioned a couple of real scoring chances. Firstly, Ballack blocked a header from a corner before Fagan strode easily through what should have been a 50/50 challenge to advance on goal. He raced towards Hilario and opted for a deft chip – sadly he failed to get the ball high enough and the ludicrously-attired keeper comfortably caught the ball. Dean Marney was to his right and was screaming for a pass. Fagan’s decision-making was perhaps awry on this occasion.
Mikel, poor throughout, was the first player to be brought off as Phil Scolari – note, it’s now “Scolari”, not “Big Phil” in the media – introduced Belletti in his place. With the game drifting a little and the noisome Tiger Nation now in full cry, he made a second change on 62 minutes, withdrawing Quaresma for the muscular presence of Didier Drogba. It mattered not, for what attacking play was occurring was largely instigated by City.
Midway through the half, we had our best chance to take the lead. Geovanni skipped into space in the area before playing a delightful reverse pass to Marney. His left-footed shot was low, hard and zipped past Hilario, but flew inches wide. From this observer’s perspective in the upper tier, it looked in.
Mr Mason had spent a lazy afternoon giving most decisions in favour of Chelsea, to the obvious and increasing displeasure of Ashbee, but he levelled things up by denying a very good penalty claim when the ball struck Andy Dawson’s left arm. It was a powerfully hit shot, but there was time for the City left-back to withdraw his errant limb. He didn’t, and was a relieved man when Mr Mason accepted his immediate suggestion that the ball had struck his stomach.
Ballack had been bested by Marney and Ashbee in the midfield battle, and he was withdrawn for the scheming genius that is Deco. However, the game was slipping away from Chelsea and they were consistently failing to pierce the resolute City back-line. Geovanni sent another free-kick frustratingly off-target after a foul on Kilbane, but as the game entered the final ten minutes City began to sit back a little.
Kalou burst through a challenge on the end of the area and appeared to be clear on goal, however as a frantic covering defender arrived he was hurried into shooting too early and too close to Duke, whose handling was assured.
Ryan France replaced Geovanni as the celebrations in the away end reached even higher levels of intensity, and there was time for just two more chances – both, remarkably, for City. An Alex blunder gave Fagan a sight on goal, but a brilliant covering tackle by Terry saw his shot screw away for a corner. From this set-piece, the ball broke to Ashbee about ten yards from goal, but he slashed a shot badly wide.
No matter; Chelsea had been a spent force for nearly fifteen minutes and we comfortably held on for the three minutes Mr Mason added to claim a superb point.
Our first clean sheet in the League since October will probably gladden the manger as much as our intelligent counter-attacking play. For the first time in quite a while, we looked clever, composed and controlled through out. Plaudits for all – Matt Duke was a steady influence at the back and made both of the saves he was required to. Turner and Zayatte were both at their marvellous best, while Dawson and Ricketts refused to let Chelsea’s runners from deep lure them out of position.
Kilbane and Garcia shored up both flanks, forcing Chelsea inside where they found Ian Ashbee having one of his finest hours in a City shirt, ably supported by the tireless Marney. Up front, Geovanni kept Chelsea occupied in a deep role, while Craig Fagan was simply magnificent: aggressive, fast, skilful, committed. Arguably his finest hour in black and amber, too.
Twenty-nine points are now ours. If we dropped two last week, we certainly gained one here. And while win-lose is obviously better for your tally than draw-draw, the implications of this result go beyond a mere point. We looked back to our best again. This was no streaky draw, achieved with our post being rattled, Duke being kept busy or referees giving us everything. We fought one of Europe’s top teams at home, took the game to them, and deserved our result. There’s a spring back in our step – and for that, huge credit to Phil Brown and his players. (AD)