I have to confess that I approached this game with a lot of excitement...
but even more trepidation. It is all very well saying, as some have,
"oh I remember when we beat this lot 7-0 less than ten years ago",
but you hardly need me to tell you that things have changed a tad
since then. Chelsea are notoriously inconsistent, certainly, but
a cursory glance at their team sheet (a mere 9 internationals),
combined with the fact that they have been known to spark into life
and thrash the likes of Manchester United 5-0 gave us reason to
wonder what might be in store for us tonight. Well I can at least
put your mind at rest on that front - we were beaten 2-0. Well beaten
in the end, even. But we were nowhere near disgraced, and in many
respects gave our best defensive performance for many months.
Matthieu Louis-Jean's welcome return from injury on Saturday at
Grimsby (albeit curtailed by the reshuffling required after assorted
sendings off) led most of us to suspect that we would revert to
4 at the back, and so it proved. What was perhaps less predictable
was the 5 across midfield, with Dougie playing effectively as a
right winger and Stern on his own up front. The plan appeared to
be to deny Chelsea space, to stop them passing in midfield, to press
Leboeuf in order to cut off the supply so often provided by his
long range passing skills, and to catch them on the counter attack.
Well let me dwell on the good points first (and there were many).
The defensive side of this game plan worked a treat. Lurch was immense.
The back 4 all played well (Hjelde and ML-J especially so), the
midfield pressed the ball all over the field (with Bart particularly
prominent), and Stern was singled out for praise by Luca Vialli
in the after match press conference for his tireless work in stopping
Leboeuf from having time to hurt us with his passing. Of course
there were occasional alarms in the first half, notably when Louis-Jean
acrobatically cleared off the line from Poyet, when Petrescu managed
to chip Lurch inside the 6 yard box and Zola rammed it in from close
range only to find he was offside (had he left it alone the ball
might well have gone in anyway and the goal would have stood), and
when Harley hit the angle of post and bar from the edge of the box.
But on the whole we kept them at arm's length pretty effectively
for the first 45 minutes and the travelling support was pretty happy
to go into half time at 0-0.
The second half remained much the same, with Chelsea having a lot
of the ball deep in midfield but finding little or no space to do
much with it where it hurts. On the occasions when the midfield
wall was breached some imperious tackling by Hjelde and Riccy and
several beautifully-timed blocks from ML-J kept them at bay - and
behind all this Beasant was having a stormer, tipping brilliantly
over from Poyet (twice) and Zola. Eventually we cracked, however,
when a free kick on the left hand corner of the box was whipped
in by Zola with the sort of accuracy and pace that we can only dream
of from free kicks, straight onto Leboeuf's head, and his deft flicked
header left Lurch with no chance.
I said earlier that the plan was to contain and catch them on the
counter-attack, and really it was the counter-attacking bit of the
which plan didn't work. In the first half there was a classic example.
Riccy won the ball on the edge of our box with a superb tackle and
brought it out at pace into midfield. As he crossed the half way
line he had Rogers to his left and Dougie and Stern to his right,
with only 2 Chelsea defenders back-pedalling like crazy in front
of him. He tried the right ball into Stern's path, but Leboeuf read
it superbly and the chance was gone. That was really the difference
between the two sides; though we were able to make it very difficult
for them and defended throughout with skill, determination and a
lot of hard running, what we found much more difficult to achieve
was creating much danger on the counter-attack. We didn't get too
many chances, as you would expect against a side of this class,
and when we did get at them the final ball was too often a weak
So when, after well over an hour of stout Forest defending and the
beginnings of discontented rumbles from the Chelsea fans, they finally
managed to get that first goal, the concern was that we might not
be able to step up a gear in attack in order to get back into it.
And so, largely, it proved. Stern did manage to skin Leboeuf once
and force a good De Goey save from a narrow angle, and later ML-J
showed us that his left foot is not simply for standing on by trying
to curl it round De Goey from the edge of the box after a fine run
- again the Dutchman saved well at full stretch. But these two were
the only serious (half-) chances that we managed to create all evening.
Marlon came on for Andy Gray once Chelsea scored, and put himself
about well; in many ways the high spot of the game for me came in
injury time, when Marlon ran at the defence from deep, leaving Wise
and Poyet trailing in his wake and finally putting Leboeuf on his
behind with a drag back...before shooting well wide from distance.
But as we pressed forward and moved to 4-4-2 - and even at times
to 4-3-3 - inevitably the remaining midfield players couldn't make
the centre of the pitch so claustrophobic, and Chelsea soon scored
the second and decisive goal. Morris got the ball on the edge of
the box and set off on a mazy diagonal run. Hjelde and ML-J managed
to prevent him getting a shot in, but an exquisite drag back right
on the by-line gave Morris just enough room to chip a cross over
Beasant and onto Wise's head 2 yards out. A fine goal. But even
after that, with the Chelsea fans baying for a rout, we managed
to keep them from creating any more serious chances. Tore Andre
Flo, for instance, was virtually played out of the game by his fellow-Norwegian
(which must have given Jon Olav particular pleasure, to judge by
the obvious banter that was passing between them at the final whistle!).
So. There is no disgrace in losing 2-0 away to that lot. It was
always likely to be an uphill battle, and in the end the crucial
difference between the two sides was the quality of that final ball
into the box - but then in my opinion Poyet and Zola are two of
the finest exponents of that particular art in the whole of Europe,
so that is not toosurprising. Similarly, fine prospect though David
Prutton is, we should not be too amazed to find him overshadowed
in the middle of the park by the Captain of the World Champions,
But we worked our socks off and we defended excellently, with spirit,
determination and skill. (If we can get ourselves to defend like
that for a few weeks in the First Division, sides are going to find
it very hard to score against us. Now there is a target for you,
boys!). And Prutton, Tank, Bart and Gray are not going to find themselves
up against Wise, Deschamps, Zola and Poyet every week, so we ought,
you would think, to be able to create more against lesser sides.
All in all a creditable performance with much to take forward to
the important few games we have coming up. No-one played badly,
but my Man of the Match would be Dave Beasant, by a short head from
ML-J and Jon Olav Hjelde. OK, lads. You have shown us you can do
it. Now go and defend like that against the likes of the Baggies
and Man City....
I really ought to mention the ref, David Elleray. After so many
hideous lower division refs, it was a pleasure to find a ref who
could tell the difference between a mis-timed tackle and a dirty
one (ML-J would probably have been sent off by one or two of our
recent men in black, because Zola enticed several fouls out of him
which were the result of superior skill from a brilliant player,
rather than malicious intent from a clogger - which ML-J is not).
Similarly, when Lambourde and Tank exchanged sly elbows and hand
bags at five paces in the second half, Mr Elleray had the sense
to talk to them both rather than instantly reaching for a card.
Good for you, Mr Elleray. That is what referees are meant to be