4:30pm on a cold winter Sunday. The perfect time to settle down in front of a roaring fire and gradually fall asleep to then soothing tones of Songs of Praise and Countryfile. Or you could travel to London Town to watch Hull City play at Stamford Bridge, a ground where the limit of our aspirations through the years has been the occasional draw (and the occasional goal). Chelsea welcomed back Diego Costa to the fold, recovered from his “back injury”. Presumably he has hugged and made up with Antonio Conte (the latter has still not noticed his missing wallet). We had our own tactical injury with Robert Snodgrass, absent through a slight strain. This could well have been the rapid neck movements as he chooses between the various suitors that are vying for his attentions. The glass-half-full brigade will see his absence as an indicator of an impending move whilst the glass-half-full proponents will see it as being kept out of the shop window until the prospect of transfer has passed by. I just want to know why I didn’t get a glass.
We line up with Eldin Jakupović in goal, a back three of Michael Dawson, Harry Maguire and Curtis Davies flanked by Andy Robertson and our debutant Viking fullback Omar Elabdellaoui. Ahead of them Sam Clucas, Ryan Mason and Tom Huddlestone form the core of midfield with Evandro (on his full debut) and Abel Hernández further forward. From the kickoff Chelsea storm forward. Within seconds Costa rampages forward like a bull in a China shop and lashes a volley that skitters wide of the Jak’s right hand post. I resigned myself to recording a litany of Chelsea attempts on goal and (hopefully) defensive heroics.
For the first few minutes that is certainly the case. Dawson gets an early yellow for running in to Pedro whilst Cahill doesn’t for a worse looking foul on Clucas thus setting the tone for Neil Swarbrick’s refereeing strategy. On our first serious foray towards the Matthew Harding stand Huddlestone plays a one-two but drags the shot wide. The game is evening out. And then there is a sickening injury to Ryan Mason. He rises well to head clear a corner microseconds before being knocked cold by the arriving Cahill. The latter is on his feet quickly but groggy. After about nine minutes of attention – including oxygen – Mason is stretchered off. We learned this morning that he has a fractured skull but stable. We all wish him well. Mason was just starting to show flashes of why we paid a record fee after a difficult start. It is a blow for him and the club. David Meyler gets an earlier call to action than he might otherwise have expected.
Mason’s injury has galvanized the team. Evandro and Hernández link well but are repelled then Harry storms forward to fire in a shot that deflects into the side netting. From the resulting corner it is that man Maguire again but his header is straight into the grateful arms of Courtois. Chelsea come storming back with a series of corners and we are under the cosh. Davies becomes the second booking before Jak tips over a deflected Alonso shot. The pressure is almost continuous at this point. It appears that Elabdellaoui bundles over Hazard after some neat interplay. Nervous glances are thrown towards the referee and it is with some relief that we see him pointing towards the corner and not the penalty spot.
Fifteen minutes of incessant pressure come to an end when Hazard contrives to fall over about five feet from the nearest Hull City player. Costa does put the ball into the net but he and at least one other Chelsea player were yards offside despite the plaintive appeals otherwise. It is at the end of this period of pressure that Maguire has another rumble forward. His 30 yard piledriver is turned aside by a flying Courtois. Nine minutes are added at the end of the period for the Mason injury. Some neat Hull City passing opens up Chelsea but Meyler’s attempt to find a wide open Robertson goes straight into touch. My neighbour in the crowd posits that Meyler is the “crappest player on the pitch”. I will be kinder. He is the least technically gifted but contributes through his effort and doggedness.
The contest between Maguire and Costa has been particularly fun to watch with the former outmuscling the latter into several hissy fits. Kante goes close but the ball runs through to Jak. Davies is lucky to escape a second yellow when clattering Pedro outside the area and then the added time almost inevitably brings a Chelsea goal. It started with a clearance to Hernández who appears to be holding the ball well before being thrown to ground by Cahill (yes, him again). Chelsea come forward and Pedro’s cross is met by Costa, who, with china in his hands, slides the ball into the net via Jakupović’s foot. It is inevitable but cruel on City side who have kept the Chelsea goalkeeper busier than ours has been.
The second half is more of the same. It is a very even game and difficult to pick out who is top of the league and who is (almost) bottom. Maguire lets fly with another shot that is just wide before Clucas sees an effort deflect off a defender and loop behind for a corner. Hernández is clipped in the area but no penalty results. Perhaps Swarbrick is balancing things out for the Hazard incident in the first half. Whatever, he is a rubbish ref. Meyler is the next to force Courtois into action and the game is mostly being played out in front of the visiting supporters in the corner of what used to be the old Shed End. Clucas is then flattened by Sideshow Bob but the resulting free kick comes to nought. We are definitely missing Snodgrass’ dead ball skills: a series of unthreatening corners are slung over by Clucas and Evandro. We then lose a second player to injury with Davies limping off. He is replaced by Oumar Niasse and we go to a back four. Bringing a forward on shows (a) a lack of defensive cover on the bench and (b) intent that we can still effect a result. Hernández appears to be fouled on the edge of the box by Luis but the former is penalised for grabbing the ball as he falls to the ground. Still we are pressing and win a corner via Moses’ hand but as I said, we are lacking quality on the set pieces.
Huddlestone – having an effective game in midfield – plays in Abel but the latter’s touch is heavy and gathered by Courtois. At this stage Chelsea have to resort to breaking up play with a series of fouls. We can’t take advantage, being caught offside from a couple of set pieces before Maguire drags one comically wide.
Adama Diomande replaces Hernández who has ploughed a lone and fruitless furrow up front all afternoon. We continue to look more likely to score but don’t. And Chelsea do, giving us a lesson in how to take a quality set piece and how to score from it. Willian’s trickery on the left draws a foul. Fabregas spits on his hands (and not Horton’s shoes) and lays up a perfect cross for an unmarked Cahill to bury the header. Chelsea 2-0 up, somewhat undeservedly and Jak is alert to prevent Costa getting an even-less-deserved third goal. There is still time for Niasse to sting Courtois’s palms with a quick turn and shot to the left of the box but that turns out to be our last chance while Chelsea play the game out with ease.
Another goalless, pointless visit to The Bridge. It was an even game and one could make a very convincing case for us deserving better. We matched the league champions elect in all aspects other than the one that counts: putting the ball in the net and we know how much of a problem that has been this season. If nothing else it augers well for upcoming fixtures with teams that are less clinical than Chelsea and that are not going to win the league. A lack of quality in set pieces without Snodders is worrying: we are going to need a few goals before the end of the season. Anyway, onwards to Craven Cottage for a 12:30 Sunday kickoff (after the second leg of the league cup semi). I hope the concession stands are doing Sunday roasts.
Rob Kaye (report first appeared on the Tiger Chat mailing list)