Many things were said about the Community Shield prior to the kick-off earlier in the day, many more comments will be made up until the middle of the week, by which point the event will be consigned to the annals of history, used sporadically in obscure pub quiz questions. However, despite the sayings of the experts and the pundits, one middle aged lady on the Clapham Junction to Gatwick train probably summed up proceedings better than anyone…
“Well, they never play well against each other, do they?”
It probably sums up everything you need to know about games between Chelsea and Manchester United in the modern day very nicely, given that it’s done in all of 10 words. Once again, the spectacle was built up to a certain degree by all and sundry, about how the new signings would make the game an interesting affair, about how the competitiveness and one-upmanship of the two managers will means it will be spirited and how the new surroundings will invigorate the players into action. All pure rubbish believed by only the most gullible of red-top readers or Sky viewers. Once again, the top two in England served up a dull encounter, that made a mockery of the anticipation that comes when they meet one another.
It’s extremely seldom I will praise Claudio Ranieri’s reign at Stamford Bridge, but the man sure knew how to raise your heart pulse as a fan. You have to go back to 2002 for the last time the two sides played out a genuine, end-to-end game which kept rival fans and other alike on the edge of their seats. The early-season 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge turned out to be one of the highlights of the season, a high-quality match between two entertaining, attack-minded teams with title ambitions. Ranieri’s first match in charge of the Blues also saw another thriller, 3-3 at Old Trafford and even before his time, Ruud Gullit and Gianluca Vialli served up some exciting matches along with Sir Alex Ferguson, the most memorable being the 5-3 reversal at Stamford Bridge in January 1998 in the FA Cup Third Round, when United played at their imperious best for 60 minutes, before Chelsea gave them something to think about. Paying to watch two sides share about 8 chances rather than 8 goals makes you want to hark back to those days of see-saw matches that raised the blood pressure.
Perhaps the fact that every game is now studied, scrutinised and picked apart to the most irrelevant, minute detail doesn’t help the matter at all. Now every match counts for something if you listen to the right people, and with the amount of money available in the league, the cups and Europe, clubs can’t afford to play football of the calibre seen in days gone by. In pressure situations, such as a final day battle for relegation, or a nervy play-off to make the World Cup finals, excuses can be made and the nature of the event can explain away the low standard of football. But we are talking about the Community Shield, for heavens sake. This is a chance for Chelsea and Manchester United to prove why they are England’s top two, and yet once again they fail to impress. It’s frustrating as a fan of Chelsea, it must be infuriating for someone who is a partial observer.
The match was a disappointment, along with the behaviour of the two sets of supporters, something I will come to later, but I cannot be negative about everything related to the day. The building of Wembley stadium was a farcical matter at best, but after all the delays, the cost and the criticism that came the way of the developers and planners, they can look back at their achievements and be proud. It is an absolutely magnificent arena, right up there with the very best around the world, in any sport. The sheer magnitude of the stadium strikes you as soon as you get a first real look at it, and as you step inside, you appreciate the amount of work that went into making Wembley what it now is. Yes, the refreshments and toilets are still as jammed and expensive as they ever were, but the volume of supporters, the fact that no-one has a bad seat in the ground and the effort that went into the stadium alleviate all that. It is a stadium that England can be proud of, and one which I am sure will have many of it’s own memories 100 years on from now. A fantastic ground, fit for any occasion, be it the World Cup, Champions League or FA Cup final.
Unfortunately the same could not be said of the two sides. A pre-season friendly it may be, but it was the same cagey, dull, unattractive matches that we have seen from the two sides in recent times. With names such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Joe Cole, Ryan Giggs, Florent Malouda and Wayne Rooney all on the pitch to start with, the fans could have been encouraged into thinking we were in for a great match. Not to be, as both sides started off in ithat traditonal tactical style, and rarely kicked out of second gear. There were a few flashes of excellence, United’s passing at times was crisp, fluent and promising, while Chelsea made better use of the wings than at any point last season, but there was never the impression that we could have a real game on our hands. Most of the action came between the 25-minute mark and half-time, in which Giggs and Malouda netted for their respective sides, but after that there was little of note. The penalty shoot-out was a relief in one respect, as it meant that we didn’t have to sit through another half-hour of boring fare.
If either side deserved the victory, it was admittedly United. Chelsea tried to make use of the flanks on a number of occasions throughout, but Giggs and Ronaldo still remain the benchmark in the Premiership. Giggs with his guile and Ronaldo with his trickery. In the most part, Ashley Cole did a decent job of keeping the Portuguese winger honest, but time and again Ronaldo would remind you of his ability which he is now fulfilling to the utmost of his ability. Giggs’ awareness for his goal and his general performance, while nowhere near his own peak during the Treble season, was still too much for Glen Johnson to deal with.
It was United who were always creating the chances throughout, and when they took the lead it wasn’t too much of a surprise, but Chelsea were never a million miles off the pace, and their own goal was a reward for their endeavours to use the wing-players. Ashley Cole’s long ball was latched onto by Malouda, who then made a mockery of a top defender in Rio Ferdinand, before coolly clipping the ball past Edwin Van Der Sar. If anything can be taken out of the day for Chelsea, the 13 million pound signing from Lyon was a class apart from any other player in blue on the pitch. We were here before with Andriy Shevchenko last season, but Malouda impressed from start to his abrupt finish, when he had to go off injured. Other than that though, the Blues were below-par, not helped by Mourinho’s baffling decisions with player selection at the start and during the game.
The 4-3-3 policy wreaked havoc in the past for the Special One, but when you have Shaun-Wright Phillips on the right and Joe Cole as the central striker, you might as well not bother. Wright-Phillips, as usual, was handy with his first few touches, giving Mikael Silvestre plenty to think about, but as ever, the end product was simply woeful. Cross after cross misplaced, every attempt to cut inside or take on an opponent snuffed out, and no pot-shots at a goalkeeper with a reputation for the occasional fumble. The excuses made for his inconsistency wore thin a long time ago. The simple fact of the matter is that at Kevin Keegan’s Manchester City, he was a big fish in a small pond. With a move to one of the Big Four teams, he needed to improve and show us why he was worth 21 million pounds. Joe Cole did it, Didier Drogba did it, Wright-Phillips has gone backwards. Simply put, he’s not good enough for Chelsea, and I can’t see anything happening any time soon to change that.
As for Joe Cole, a start for him on the right side may well have seen him control the game and lead the United defence a merry dance, but it was decided that he should start as the sole out-and-out striker. Excuse me, but since when was Joe Cole a striker? It was a bad enough decision in the first place, but then the idea of launching long balls down the centre just made the whole procedure look stupid. Joe Cole is not a target man, never has been, never will be. Claudio Pizarro eventually came on and looked alright in the striker’s role, at least giving Chelsea an aerial prescence in the second half. If he had Cole and Malouda supporting him from the wings from the start, the game may have taken on a whole different dimension itself. The fact that there were four defensive or central midfielders on the pitch by the end also caused a little bit of confusion. It also served to pack out the centre, and the likes of Michael Essien and Frank Lampard were just in the way of each other by the end. It is at times like these where Mourinho’s choice of players and tactics confuses and aggravates. The fact that the side has now scored one goal in the last seven attempts in a penalty shoot-out also must raise concerns for the management at the Bridge.
As bad as the game was though, it was overshadowed by the antics of those around me up in the West Stand. Passions run high in football matches, people swear, people blind and people say things they don’t mean, that’s part and parcel of the game and it’s one of the few things that remain the same about the game from decades ago. However, there is passion and support, and then there is low-life, disgusting actions from the scrapings of the barrel. I am sure this is only in the minority of the 80,000 who attended the match today, but it’s crass, unnecessary and bigoted nevertheless. As an Irishman, I don’t need reminding of the black mark on the history of both the Republic and Northern Ireland that was the IRA and the Troubles, yet a nice guy to the left of me decided to sing about it all day, as if anyone needed informing.
The worst of all was half an hour into the match though, when a middle-aged man came into the stadium, a row below us, and a group of people were around his area, one sitting in his seat. The man, quite reasonably asked the steward if he could sit in his designated seat, but after a struggle and much blowing, the guy already sitting there moved down a row, not before turning around and calling the man a “fucking weirdo” and “paedo cunt”. Unacceptable, indefensible and neanderthal. If that’s how people are going to behave to one another at football matches, I don’t want to know. The attitude between both sets of fans was childish at best, pathetic at it’s worst. Joking and banter is perfectly fine, I laughed when Ronaldo made a mess of a step-over earlier in the day, I sang along, I joked, I swore and I blinded, like everyone else. I didn’t go around making myself look like a disgrace however. There’s a line that you don’t cross, calling someone a paedophile because you’re sitting in their seat doesn’t just cross the line, it practically dumps on it. It was a terrible sour note to an otherwise enjoyable day.
Moving the article back to where it belongs though, where does this leave matters as the Premiership season kicks off next Sunday for Chelsea and United? If you asked me now, based on what has happened over the summer in terms of transfers, the build up to the season and on the basis of what I saw today, I have to fancy the Red Devils for the title. Liverpool are still a season away from a genuine title challenge, Arsenal are heading south and quick and Spurs haven’t got the staying power or ability to mount a serious title bid for some time to come yet. So, between Chelsea and United, it’s the latter who hold the upper edge at the moment for me personally. The difference between the two sides was quite marked today, in the first half particularly. Chelsea retained the ball immaculately for the first 20 minutes, it’s one of the strengths within Mourinho’s side. However, the Blues hardly created an opportunity in those first 20 minutes.
Then you look at United, who controlled the half from there on until the end of the first period, and they just seemed to be looking to create more chances. It’s a staple of an Alex Ferguson team, he once said himself his sides “cannot simply defend”. Evidence of that is in the attacking talent that has flowed through his United sides in the last two decades. McClair, Hughes, Robson, Cantona, Giggs, Scholes, Cole, Yorke, Beckham and Van Nistelrooy. The names come naturally for any fan, now Ferguson is looking to add to that list with the likes of Ronaldo, Rooney, Nani and Anderson. Although we didn’t see the best of United today and in recent matches against Chelsea, there is a tendency for both sides to clam up, Ferguson has always had an attacking intent in his sides, and his track record supports his theory. The Scot has mentioned about how he is looking to create his “fourth great team” at Old Trafford, certainly he has the squad in place, it’s just a matter of whether they can all fulfil their potential. If so, they could be the dominant force once again in English football for a time to come.
For Chelsea? The result is not important in the long run, the club has been here before, it will be here again. But the manner in which they put out their stall is a matter which needs to be looked at. The fans have been promised a return to the peak of early 2005 with the attacking verve that saw the Blues run away with the title, on the evidence on today not much will change. The club needs to base it’s foundations around attacking, exciting players if they want to rival, or even better Manchester United. The players who aren’t up to scratch need to be jettisoned (Robben, Wright-Phillips, Johnson) and the focus needs to be based around the likes of Joe Cole and Michael Essien, players who make things happen. Their squad is not quite complete, perhaps another winger and a right-back need to come in for the squad to get it’s finishing touches (Daniel Alves is interested and is Joaquin too much to ask?) but despite the questions raised today, let’s not lose sight of where Chelsea are. Ryan Giggs said there’s not much between the two sides in the aftermath of today, and he’s spot on. Chelsea are now always there and thereabouts and this year will be no different. Mourinho knows how to get the job done, the players in the main have the experience of winning the title and a sense of stability has reutnred to the club. Some work needs to be done, but if they regain their crown, it shouldn’t surprise many.
Today was interesting, if nothing else in particular. It’s rare that you get to see the best and the worst of English football and all the aspects that come with it in one place at one time. There are certainly some positives to take from the day, most striking is that I have had the pleasure of watching a match in the new Wembley, a stadium of wonder and excellence and an arena of which Multiplex, the FA and English football can be immensley proud of. However, the day was dampened by the turgid football served up by two sides who know they can perform, and need to perform to a much higher level if they want to have successful seasons. Then there was also the problem of the mindless minority around me masquerading as ‘fans’. It’s attitudes such as that which give English fans a bad name around Europe and spoils the occasion for those that are there for what matters: the football. For anyone who can, I would fully recommend that you get a ticket, make your way to Wembley and take pride of what is now on offer in HA9. However, just beware if you’re off to see Chelsea and United, as I fear the middle aged lady halfway between Clapham and Gatwick ultimately was on the money.