Saturday, 15 August 2009

01: Chelsea 2 - 1 Hull City - 15/08/2009

It feels like there are a thousand consolations one can take from defeat, especially a defeat so telegraphed as that of Hull City away at Chelsea. Whether any of these consolations will help ease the pain of such a dramaticlly late defeat is entirely another matter.

The Tigers were magnificent, and nobody can deny this, even the most blinkered of Londoners who have Blue Is The Colour as their ringtone and Didier Drogba screaming "disgrace!" as a text alert. Drogba himself scored both of Chelsea's goals, both of which came from the more dubious direction of footballing fate. And the winner was two minutes into a colossal and way overcalculated six minutes of injury time, just when enough seemed to have been done by City to earn an unexpected, brilliant point.

And displays like this, assuming City have the character to shrug aside the disappointment and re-attain their focus, will stand them in good stead for the games and the whole campaign ahead.

Phil Brown picked a 4-5-1 which mixed the obvious with the totally inexplicable, courtesy of the appearance of Caleb Folan on the teamsheet as a lone striker. Jozy Altidore's struggle with the bureaucrats allocating visas ruled him out, but there was still Kamel Ghilas and Daniel Cousin surely ahead of Folan in the pecking order. Yet the gawky part-Irishman with a limited awareness of the offside law was picked - and duly lasted the whole 90 minutes, playing a rare blinder.

Debuts were handed to Steven Mouyokolo, incongruously put in at right back, and Stephen Hunt, who was given his standard wide left berth and thrived on the ruthless booing he received throughout from the Chelsea fans who think somehow that he deliberately kneed Petr Cech in the skull three years ago. Seyi Olofinjana stood giantly alongside George Boateng and Dean Marney in central midfield, while Ghilas had to make do with the bench, alongside Cousin and other attacking options Geovanni and Nick Barmby.

In blazing west London sunshine which made the new amber shirts gleam to almost Wolves-esque old gold proportions, City started the game on the back foot. Anxious to please new gaffer Carlo Ancelotti, a swift break was embarked upon but Drogba volleyed Michael Essien's cross a long way wide. Frank Lampard then swerved in and out of attempts to de-shin him before finding the same centre forward, who again forgot where the goal was with a handsomely off-target shot.

Jon Obi Mikel then shot wide from distance before City began to find some rhythm and settle into the game. Bernard Mendy, gratifyingly elected for the midfield instead of the defence, made good room on his flank to give skipper Boateng time and room for a shot which was delivered with the outside of his right foot and flashed just wide.

It calmed everyone's nerves, and City were buoyed by this chance and the encouragement from the Shed End where the Tiger Nation were in excellent voice. Boateng led by example, making himself available for every ball and leading a smart and intricate passing move which ended when Marney headed Hunt's cross over the bar.

John Terry skied a header from Florent Malouda's corner but it was City who were beginning to exercise some control on the game. Hunt, inspired like all scoundrel footballers by the catcalls from his detractors, forced a corner which Marney swung in dangerously, and Cech was fortunate to heel Boateng's low drive up and over the top.

Michael Turner, imperious and flawless as always, got a sturdy and timely block on an Essien drive before City broke again, forcing a free kick in a wide position. Marney took it and Chelsea struggled to deal with it, allowing Boateng another shot which Cech went down to save, only for a defender to ricochet it into Hunt's path as the keeper threw himself to the ground. The debutant had time and room to steer a shot into the net and silence the many while sending the few into hysterics.

It wasn't undeserved at all but it did knock some sense into a lethargic Chelsea, who seemed to concur with their arrogant supporters' view that turning up as all that was required to get three points on the opening day. Within fewer than ten minutes, they were level as Anthony Gardner, sold down the river by Marney's underhit pass, gave away a dodgy looking free kick on the edge of the box which Drogba steered with nonchalance and irritating skill into Boaz Myhill's left corner.

Myhill then held on to a low Essien drive to his left and had to deal with a further effort from Drogba as the hosts aimed to take the lead prior to half time. City had to regroup a little when Marney, industrious as ever despite a couple of typically underconfident moments on the ball, stretched a little too awkwardly towards a loose ball and seemed to twist a knee. He tried to continue but couldn't, and Barmby replaced him.

Olofinjana, an imposing and fearless figure who gave Lampard as much hell as he could, belted a shot too high after Mouyokolo's long throw was cleared in his direction. Chelsea had one last go at the other end, with again Myhill clinging on to an Essien shot. A 1-1 half time score was fair and warmly received from one corner of the stadium.

Chelsea bought Michael Ballack on for the pointlessly defensive Mikel as the second half got underway in real anticipation. Memories of last season's awesome defensive display at the Bridge which earned the Tigers a goalless draw and Luiz Felipe Scolari his cards were ripe in the minds of the Tiger Nation once again.

However, Chelsea clearly meant business from the moment the game restarted, with Myhill making an astute stop from Nicolas Anelka after Drogba had outmuscled Turner and set his partner free. City attempted to defend through possession but upon forcing a corner, the delivery played into a counter-attacker's hands and Mendy ended up making a stunning last-ditch challenge on the breaking Ricardo Carvalho with many defenders out of the equation.

Lampard hit the side netting with a low shot before a remarkable passage of play tested the new-look City rearguard to its very limits, and they passed it magnificently. Andy Dawson replicated his wonder tackle on Theo Walcott last season by robbing Anelka in the six yard box with Myhill exposed, then Turner and Olofinjana threw their bodies in the way of shots almost beyond the call of duty before Myhill blocked follow-up drive. Drogba then broke on the right of the box to make room for a vicious drive which Myhill batted away wonderfully.

It was inspiring, unreproducable heroism from City. The defence was being what it needed to be and it was just so thrilling to witness. It won't be Chelsea every week, so performances at the back like this against allegedly weaker teams from Turner and Gardner, with Olofinjana screening things ahead of them (and giving Ian Ashbee much food for thought as he battles back from injury).

At the other end, there was still room for optimism. Hunt whizzed in a cross which Cech had to collect above his head as Folan closed in, then the same two combined to give Boateng half a sight of goal but the exceptional City midfielder took too long to tee up the chance and was relieved of the ball without testing Cech.

Hunt was booed loudly off the park as Brown slung Ghilas on his place, so the Tiger Nation responded with extra noisy and exuberant cheering for City's goalscorer, acknowledged enthusiastically by the new boy. Ghilas played in Hunt's role initially and was soon put through in decent space but Terry got a crucial foot in as the cross approached an unmarked Folan in the area.

Essien fired a very speculative shot wide, then Myhill got down well at his near post to deny Jose Bosingwa. Geovanni was then introduced for the tiring but unusually disciplined Mendy, with Brown evidently deciding that the defence was doing fine and didn't need reinforcing, and therefore the last alteration may as well signal an intent to win the match. Ghilas adopted a more central role with Barmby spreading wide, allowing room for the Brazilian to influence things from the centre of the park.

Ballack fired a shot very high over the bar and then fellow subs Deco and Salomon Kalou combined dangerously, but the latter's header was off target. Drogba had a shot blocked as the injury time board signalled a ludicrous six minutes - six minutes that undoubtedly gave Chelsea a boost that they would still be able to win the game.

Heaven only knows where those minutes came from. There was a pause for Gardner and Cech to receive treatment midway through the second half but it didn't warrant six minutes, while the delay over Marney was in the first half. The referee, Alan Wiley, will never be required to explain just why he and his team added so many extra minutes on to the game, which is a pity as many of us are dying to know. Fewer than two of them had passed when the inevitable happened.

Drogba made room down the left and chipped what was an intended cross over Myhill's hand and agonisingly into the far corner of the net. He took his shirt off in relief and glee, and the City players sank to their knees, distraught. Few of last season's defeats came in as cruel a manner as this, especially as unlike many of those reverses, City did not deserve to lose this one. Chelsea got out of jail and they know it. Ghilas had one chance in the remaining minutes which he swung on to the roof of the net, but the game was lost.

But there are all those consolations, as we look forward with real optimism to the visit of Tottenham Hotspur on Wednesday night before a full house at the KC. The debutants - especially Olofinjana - settled in immediately and were beyond impressive. We have our first choice central defence pairing in place again, a phenomenon all too rare last season. Folan has clearly been listening to advice for the first time and, although goals will be rare, may yet provide a further striking option for the season if and when the new forwards need to miss out. Mendy was responsible and positive and kept his head. Mouyokolo looked mature and settled (though he hasn't the distribution required of a full back) and comes with a handy long throw as part of the package. Myhill was magnificent. Boateng led by example and played superhumanly at times. The team looks focussed and fit.

Days like this rarely go your way. The law of sod will intercede just in time to rescue the status quo, and City suffered for it on this opening day. But they were superb and if they can eke out a healthy number of similar performances, they won't go far wrong.

Chelsea: Cech, A Cole, Terry, Carvalho, Bosingwa, Malouda (Deco 69), Mikel (Ballack 46), Lampard, Essien, Anelka (Kalou 79), Drogba. Subs not used: Turnbull, Ivanovic, Hutchinson, Sturridge.

Hull City: Myhill, Mouyokolo, Turner, Gardner, Dawson, Olofinjana, Marney (Barmby 44), Mendy (Geovanni 78), Boateng, Hunt (Ghilas 69), Folan. Subs not used: Duke, Zayatte, Halmosi, Cousin.