Sunday, 8 February 2009

25: Chelsea 0 - 0 Hull City - 07/02/2009

Is it September again? The feeling that we'd been here before was a delicious one, as the Tigers proceeded to match the mighty Chelsea on their own turf for the full 90 minutes and proved, yet again, that we belong in this division. And frankly, had we converted one of three fantastic goalscoring opportunities then victory would have been both sweet and deserved.

Naturally, the home side were in possession of the ball more often and created a little more in terms of goalscoring opportunities. They were helped by a weak refereeing performance which seemed to be crafted on the basis that £120,000 a week football players don't trip up or make errors, therefore the upstart opposition must have committed an infringement. However, the display of City - dogged and yet resourceful, committed yet clean, industrial yet crafty - was very simply the main reason why Chelsea failed to win a game that the world and his rabbit assumed would be a walkover.

Phil Brown
didn't have a great deal of room to alter his team selections from last week's rot-stopping draw with West Bromwich Albion, thanks to the injuries to Daniel Cousin and Jimmy Bullard. The suspension of Bernard Mendy - and oh, how a focussed madman like Mendy would have loved this match - meant Geovanni got his place back, with Richard Garcia spreading wide and Craig Fagan ploughing a lone furrow up front. Which, by the way, he did superbly.

The fact that the game ended goalless and one of the tightest occasions of Chelsea's season could have been so different had the home side scored what turned out to be their best opportunity after just two minutes. City conceded a free kick which Frank Lampard swung dangerously into the six yard area. Michael Ballack's flick is blocked by Matt Duke straight to John Terry, but the England captain (on a permanent banner which says 'JT - CAPTAIN, LEADER, LEGEND' at the other end - this is despite him being only one of these, and not fit to lace Ron Harris' boots) contrived to hook his hurried left-foot effort over the top from just a yard or so out.

Phew. An early let off which, if it had gone in, could have opened the floodgates, just as it did when Lampard scored that irritatingly superb chip after just three minutes of the game at the KC back in October. The error by Terry meant City could begin to settle and get a good feel of the ball, but beyond that, they could show Chelsea what they were made of, something they did with aplomb and pride.

Geovanni, back to some kind of impish, dangerous form (despite losing his range from set-pieces quite dreadfully since those free kicks against Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City) made room for a cracking, wide-angled snapshot which Henrique Hilario - playing because Petr Cech was injured and a keeper in whom the outfield Chelsea players clearly display no trust) watched just beyond the post with some relief.

Fagan, full of running and full of chippy comments towards Terry and later Jose Bosingwa, took a chase down the left and fed the Brazilian - now in receipt of his excellent new anthem from the Tiger Nation, to the tune of The Runaway Train - sized up the opening before unleashing a shot which would have tested Hilario but for Terry's outstretched leg.

This was fantastic stuff, aided by a raucous way support appreciating a first visit to Stamford Bridge in 20 years, during which time both stadium and club has become totally unrecognisable from the old Chelsea, not least because the viewing area for away fans - in the upper seating, at least - was the best of the season; on top of the action at one end while still able to establish exactly what was going on at the other end. Few football matches will be ever worth the 47 notes that Chelsea fleece from travelling watchers, but for entertainment and facilities we (almost) got our money's worth. A City goal and victory would have been worth the ticket money, the three quid for a pasty (albeit a gristle-free one which went down a storm) and the travelling costs. And, right now, it looks likely.

Michael Turner surges late on to Dean Marney's corner and heads goalwards, only for a Chelsea head to clear. From near-euphoria to panic, as Kevin Kilbane miscontrols the clearance and Chelsea counter attack at pace, with Salomon Kalou feeding new signing Ricardo Quaresma. Duke is equal, however, to the curling effort from the Portuguese wideman, tipping the shot tidily beyond his far post.

From the corner, City manage a counter of their own, as Fagan gets into a handy central position but - and this is what prevents him really reaching into the upper echelon of Tiger Nation hearts - his finish is weak, straight at Hilario, a keeper who really needs to be made to work.

It's as end to end as it sounds. Chelsea look more likely to score, and yet somehow City are as stout in defence as they have ever been, heroically throwing themselves at shots and crosses and frustrating the life out of the glittery opposition. This is epitomised little more than when Ian Ashbee gets his whole being in front of Michael Ballack's goalbound effort, before Kamil Zayatte sturdily heads out Kalou's follow up ball towards the danger zone. Alex, the oddly begloved but short-sleeved defender, nuts the corner over the bar.

From the corner, Lampard shapes up a volley but Ashbee's there again, risking cold thigh pains to stop the ball troubling Duke too muh. It's the sort of performance we love from our captain - it showcases his heart and spirit, his leadership qualities and also, crucially, means he is not in possession of the ball looking for a pass any more than strictly necessary. It's when Ashbee wants to spread the ball around that he worries us.

It's a tremendous spectacle, edge-of-seat stuff with a miture of hope for the players that their performance will be rewarded, with the sinking knowledge that Chelsea could and probably will score at any moment. While this was a constant nagging fear, the regularity and vitality of City's own attacks suggested they were capable of holding their own in such supposedly illustrious company.

Geovanni fancied this occasion too. Just before the half hour he went on a gorgeous, flowing, weaving run which left numerous defenders in his wake before he was stopped, crudely and illegally, on the edge of the box. The magic of the Brazilian was snuffed out by the bad free kick he aimed at goal, however, something which has become apparent more and more since the bad turn of form began at Christmas. Andy Dawson stood beside him, waiting for his rare chance to remind us what a devillish free kick he can take. Maybe now he'll get his go.

Another free kick, this time at the other end. Zayatte fouls Ballack, and the German's effort was swiped over the bar. Chelsea pick up the pace, and Turner makes a superb clearance from in front of his own goal-line after Kalou's twisting run makes room for a dangerous centre. Dawson is then laughably penalised for a foul when it's clear that Kalou is holding his shirt, but referees simply can't see great players needing to cheat and so make that assumption. Dawson and his team-mates are livid - good, as we've been too accepting of situations this season - but the free kick is given nevertheless. For good measure, Lampard's vicious drive is blocked by Zayatte's nether regions, causing him to writhe in utter agony and a fair few thousand fellows involunatrily squeeze their knees together and wince. Treating genital bruising is not, one presupposes, a physio's favourite part of the job. Zayatte is, however, de-watering his eyes and returning to the action shortly after.

Marney, putting in one of his most impressive shifts in City colours, delivered a splendid through ball for Fagan to scamper after, but the shot went wide. But there is a sense that City are progressing, a sense made into reality when Sam Ricketts swings a smashing cross to the far edge of the box where Kilbane meets it with a firm header that beats Hilario but touches the post. Injury time comes, and Marney puts another excellent set-piece on to Turner's head, but the effort is deflected to safety. The whistle shrills and the adulation from the Tiger Nation is appreciably and appreciatively loud.

It was one of the best halves of football City had played this season, though there had been no tangible reward in terms of goals. Can the energy and demeanour be maintained? This is Chelsea, after all. The only alleged Big Four club to have given the Tigers a battering this season, capable of doing so again if their minds and hearts are in it. However, the way City had applied themselves gave everyone on the concourses a spring in their steps as they queued for the kiosks and conveniences. Winnable possibly, defeat avoidable, definitely.

Attacking the Tiger Nation's end in the second half seemed to galvanise City even further too. There is something quite special about a noisy, joyful away support garnering a reaction in performance from the men in Hull City shirts they are there to encourage. Blair and Bush have nothing on this in terms of a 'special relationship'. As Marney prepared to take the first corner of the half, right in front of the City fans, the noise was magnificent and explosive. The delivery was good but Geovanni's header was right at Hilario.

Chelsea, again, counter attack from a Tigers set-piece and Jon Obi Mikel - or Jon Mikel Obi, depending on whether you believed the scoreboard or the PA announcer - miskicked in front of goal after City had struggled to clear their lines on two separate occasions.

Mikel then nearly ruined it for Chelsea by getting all a-fluster with Bosingwa, allowing Fagan to run through on the left side towards goal. Alas, Fagan's left foot isn't great and the combination of that with his suspect finishing meant his chipped effort was clutched high to his left by Hilario. A decent save, but a gilt-edged chance. The was the 'one'. Would there be a better chance than that?

Yes. It came with just over 20 minutes remaining, when Marney and Kilbane combined superbly on the left to give Geovanni room for a killer final ball to meet Marney's astute run down the inside left channel. The shot beat Hilario and seemed netbound from our angle but it trickled agonisingly wide by little more than an inch or two. A few thousand heads were enveloped by hands, not least by Marney himself, whose mortification at not scoring was only alleviated by the cultured way in which the chance was crafted. Still, however, we hadn't broken the deadlock and still Chelsea could see themselves as favourites to take the spoils.

Luiz Felipe Scolari - a World Cup winner who was densely told by a small gathering of Chelsea fans "you don't know what you're doing" - chucked on three quick subs but the shape and desire of Chelsea seemed to have gone, certainly when Didier Drogba came on and didn't seem to appreciate that chasing the ball and doing a spot of work may actually be in the terms of his unspeakably large contract. Turner's rarely had an easier 20 minutes.

Kalou was given a little too much room for comfort when he got to the edge of the box but wasted the shooting opportunity by sliding the left-footed drive too close to the underworked but alert Duke. As the last minutes ticked by, Drogba swerved a free kick amusingly wide and Fagan, all heart and work ethic, almost got a second go at beating Hilario but Terry got an emergency foot in. Marney's corner was longer than the norm and found Ashbee at the far post, whose swinger was a yard or so wide.

The cheer for the final whistle was reminiscent of the one which greeted the last blasts at Arsenal, and we didn't even win this game. Yet it felt like a win, the point in real terms will be useful as few would have expected it was attainable, and the effort and sheer bloody-mindedness of the team, as well as the genuine skill and imagination and optimism on show, offers such hope for the vital matches ahead. Tottenham Hotspur are in disarray and Blackburn Rovers still gasping for air, and once the FA Cup tie at Sheffield United is out of the way (and what a boon it would be if Brown could pick this team and this tactic to blow the Blades away), we have those two coming to the KC. It is, as ever, poised beautifully. What a remarkable season this is proving to be.

Chelsea: Hilario, Cole, Lampard, Mikel (Belletti 57), Ballack (Deco 73), Bosingwa, Quaresma (Drogba 63), Kalou, Terry, Alex, Anelka. Subs not used: Taylor, Ivanovic, Di Santo, Stoch.

Hull City: Duke, Ricketts, Turner, Zayatte, Dawson, Garcia, Ashbee, Marney, Kilbane, Geovanni (France 81), Fagan. Subs not used: Myhill, Doyle, Hughes, Halmosi, Barmby, Manucho.