19 Aug The Two Mollies
MATCH REPORT: CHELSEA FC VS. ARSENAL
When Chelsea met the Gunners at the Emirates last September, little could we have known we were witnessing the last glory days of an era. We were the first London club to lift the Champions League trophy. We’d started the season in style, dropping only two points in our previous six league matches. We’d beaten Wolves in a 6-nil Carling Cup rout the Tuesday before. And in North London that September day we would continue our run with goals from Mata and Torres (yes, Torres!) to send the Gunners packing in our first win against them since October 2010.
With the venerable Robert Di Matteo as manager we looked unstoppable. Sure, we’d lost the Community Shield and Super Cup matches, but who really cares about those silly little things anyway, right? We were the Champions of Europe, sitting atop the Premier League table. We were playing beautiful, free-flowing football. We were every Blues supporter’s dream come true.
Ah, but those were different days.
I needn’t go into detail about the heartbreaking weeks that followed. Drudging up those feelings of frustration, anger and agony aren’t good for the health, I’m told. So flash forward to Sunday, January 20. Benitez is interim manager. (Talk about frustration, anger and agony.) Our Champions League run for the season is done. We’re lucky to be fighting for a spot in the top three. We’re playing well, but our home form is inconsistent; we’ve drawn or lost our last three matches at the Bridge—one of which was a nil-1 shock from bottom-dwellers QPR.
Needless to say, playing Arsenal brought its share of nervousness and anxiety. I’d hardly slept the night before. Kick-off could not come soon enough.
The Road to Covington
On match day morning the alarm buzzed at 6am. It was two and half hours until kick off, but there was much to be done. The Bluegrass Blues’ usual home pub is Molly Mallone’s in the Highlands of Louisville. But today we were traveling. Covington, Kentucky (just outside of Cincinnati) was our destination. The Ohio Chelsea Supporters Union had reached out to us for a game watch and Bluegrass Blues from all over the state were going to make the journey. Call it our chapter’s first official road trip.
At 6:45, I picked up Mike (Bluegrass Blues Co-Chair) and “the other Josh”, a long-time Chelsea fan and friend. Dan from the Chicago Blues, who happened to be in town on business, arrived a few minutes later.
“What’s the pub called in Covington?” Josh asked from the backseat.
“As fate would have it,” I said, “Molly Mallone’s.”
And we were off. There was hardly a moment of silence in the hour and fifteen minute car-ride that followed. We had the same conversations I guessed Chelsea supporters all over the world were having. How happy we were at the purchase of Ba. How Bayern Munich’s signing of Pep may unfortunately mean a longer stay for Benitez. We talked of Ashley’s new contract and the lack of any word on Super Frank’s. And then the team sheets were released.
“Cech, Ivanovic, Cahill, Cole, Dave, Lampard, Ramires, Oscar, Hazard, Mata, and Torres,” Mike read off.
“Torres?!” the two Josh’s screamed, hoping to God we’d misheard.
“Torres,” Mike repeated.
The level of nervousness tripled. If Arsenal got the win today, we’d forever be branded by the Ohio supporters as those damned bringers of bad luck from Kentucky. Stupid Benitez.
Let the Game Begin
We arrived at Molly’s right on time. Hugs and handshakes for our friends in the Ohio club. Bigger hugs and handshakes for the fellow Bluegrass Blues as they trickled in.
“Torres is starting?!” someone screamed in agony as they flashed the team sheet on the screen. Poor lad. I knew his pain.
Beers were ordered. We took our places at the bar. A few rounds of “Carefree” frightened the meager crowd of Gunners in attendance. And then, at long last, the match began.
In the opening minutes, the Gunners could easily have gone ahead. Walcott played Giroud through, only to see the Frenchman strike it well wide of the post. I silently thanked Wenger for ensuring it was not Van Persie on the end of that pass.
But then came the spark we were hoping for. The next 45 minutes were Chelsea’s alone.
Mata opened up the scoring in the 6’ with a brilliant goal from an equally brilliant Azpilicueta pass. At 16’, Ramires was tripped up by the Arsenal keeper in the box to win a penalty—which Super Frank put away for his 195th Chelsea goal.
“Suuuuuuper, Super Frank!”
It was a dazzling half of football. We easily could have gone into the dressing room at half-time with more than a 2-0 lead. We controlled possession. Chelsea worked hard and passed fluently. Both Hazard and Ramires had shots-on-target saved. The only groan I recall from the crowd was after a terrible (but all too familiar) Torres shot near stoppage time.
This was the Chelsea of old and holy hell were we glad to see ‘em.
A Tale of Two Halves
You know that scene in every sports movie ever made? The one where the coach gives the inspiring speech to his team at half-time, convincing them that they can overcome the odds and go on to victory? I’m absolutely convinced that Benitez must be a master of giving the exact opposite of that speech. A
ll the worry in our hearts the lads had done so well to extinguish in that cracking first half would soon return. Once the second half began it didn’t take long to see we were no longer in control. We were playing slow and sloppy. Mertersacker, Walcott and Giroud all had shots in the first ten minutes. And then came the Gunners’ goal. After being called off-side in the first half at least a half dozen times, Walcott finally slotted one into the bottom right corner of the goal.
Was this to be Southampton all over again?
We needed a change. Arsenal looked like a different team. And, sadly, our concern for the Torres start was proving justified. But Ba wasn’t even warming up.
“Ba! Ba! Ba!” we began to chant, hoping Benitez could somehow hear us over the 4,000km between us. The Arsenal fans were beginning to get a bit mouthy too, though it was nothing we couldn’t quash with a little sing-song reminder of what exactly North London is full of.
More shots on goal from Arsenal followed. We managed little to nothing. And then came the first Chelsea substitution.
Bertrand on for Oscar.
Oh, for fcuk’s sake.
“You don’t now what you’re doing! You don’t now what you’re doing!” As loud as we were with that one, Rafa had to have heard us.
And then, right after Torres broke clear only to sabotage himself with that infamous heavy touch of his, Ba was at last on the pitch. It wasn’t two minutes later he found himself around the Arsenal keeper, bound to score. Only a superb block from Vermaelen kept us from going another goal up.
As the final minutes ticked by, I remember noticing how fast my heart was racing. This had been a 90-minute aerobic workout without the legwarmers. And then, after we gave up what seemed to be an endless stream of corners, there it was—the final whistle.
We’d held on, but only barely. We were now firmly (for now) in the top four. But more importantly, we’d done the league double over Arsenal. “One team in London! There’s only one team in London!” Well done, boys. Well done.
The Parting Glass
Most of us hung around for the Spurs/United match. Outnumbered by the opposition, we still outsang them all. While we were running ‘round Tottenham with the European Cup, they sat confused and silent—maybe a little scared as well. The 1-1 draw at White Hart Lane added a nice, plump cherry to the proceedings.
All in all, it was more than just a win for Chelsea. It was a win for the Bluegrass Blues as well. We met new friends. Drank a few pints. Sang a few songs. Celebrated another three points hard-earned. Just the way it should be.
The drive home was much quieter—our bellies full with breakfast, beer and triumph. Of course, we did talk a little about the upcoming League Cup match against Swansea.
“Hope to see you at the pub for that one,” I said.
A supporter’s work is never done.