For those of us American gridiron football fans whom are also fans of “The Beautiful Game” – and the English version in particular – the Carling Cup Final on Sunday (2/24) was the FA’s version of Super Bowl XLII; just as surprising an upset as the New York Giants’ unlikely win over the New England Patriots.
In 42 matches spanning 18 years Tottenham Hotspur had defeated Chelsea only twice. Chelsea, with all of its (er, Roman Abramovich’s) billions — and international and world-class players litter throughout their lineup, even on the bench and inactive — had been all but invincible in cup finals for over eleven years. This was their third league cup final in four years, having won the previous two. And they – along with mostly everybody else not a Spurs faithful — had no expectation of losing to a team (their London neighbors) they hadn’t lost to in Gawd knows how long.
But like I wrote five months ago on this blog, this is not Jose Mourinho’s Blues. Since taking over as manager in mid-September, Avram Grant has lost only twice in 32 matches – very impressive. But those two losses have come against the Blues’ primary competition for hardware, Manchester United and Arsenal. Grant’s bona fides over the last five months notwithstanding, Chelsea have just simply lacked the swagger and confidence they had for over three years under Mourinho despite the fact that their roster are all still players brought in by The Spectacular One. Despite their record you just got the sense that Grant was playing it safe as opposed to playing to win.
Over the last four months Tottenham, on the other hand, has found their backbone. Since Replacing Martin Jol with Juande Ramos as manager in October, the relegation-threatened Spurs have lost only five times in 27 matches, most notably slugging it out blow for blow to draws with both the Red Devils and the Gunners on their way out of relegation trouble to the mid-table. Then an unlikely road to the league cup semi-final was even more shockingly paved with a win over their cross-town rivals, which resulted in an even more unlikely date with the Goliath that is Chelsea…
…Sound vaguely like the New York Giants?
The reason for this sudden change of fortune? Ramos put more emphasis on possession and defense. Ramos challenged England first-choice keeper Paul Robinson by giving Radek Cerny significant time in the net. Ramos tightened the backline with January transfers Allen Hutton and most notably Jonathan Woodgate, and then got defensive depth with Teemu Tainio and Younas Kaboul. Then he let Aaron Lennon and Jermaine Jenas off their leash and let them run. This had the effect of giving forwards Dimitar Berbatov and Robbie Keane the space, freedom and confidence to create their own chances up front.
To say the least Grant’s lineup choices the last few months have been a little bewildering; the league cup final was certainly no exception. Instead of the 4-4-2 alignment that had worked for them through 37 matches, Grant went with a 4-3-3, which wouldn’t have raise any eyebrows had he not put left-back Ashley Cole, holding midfielder Claude Makelele and flanker Joe Cole – all in-form and significant impact players – on the bench. Joe Cole’s exclusion was especially bewildering considering (1) he has arguably been the best midfielder they’ve had for a year now, and (2) Cole’s replacement, Nikolas Anelka, is anything but a flanker (I can only guess that this was a pathetic attempt to get new-signing Anelka on the pitch with their best striker, world-class Didier Drogba, both of whom are the same kind of player and play the same position but clearly don’t compliment each other).
For most of this decade Chelsea had run Tottenham ragged trying to keep up with them, with no success. This time Spurs returned the favor, playing as a unit and with purpose, significantly winning the possession battle and taking chances at the Chelsea goal for most of the match. Tottenham went into halftime behind a goal, but it was Spurs who had their foot on the gas and the Blues on their back heels. Juliano Belletti was a poor substitute for Ashely Cole; he barely kept Lennon from running down the left flank early but you got the feeling that the little flanker for Spurs was going to run Belletti ragged late. Same on the other flank, where Jermaine Jenas was exhausting Wayne Bridge. The Tottenham midfield and defense was getting in front of Chelsea’s attack, winning balls and making them work for every possession.
When Berbatov scored the 70th minute equalizer, it was vaunted offensive juggernaut Chelsea that was playing too cautiously, something Mourinho would have never put up with when he was manager. Instead of the incisive runs and precise, coordinated creativity that had been the Blues trademark, they were tentative and indecisive, playing without cohesion, desire or organization. Without Makelele to close down the middle Michael Essian and Frank Lampard just gave up way too much space and possession in the middle. Berbatov and Keane were getting great service and getting on-target chances.
As with the Patriots three weeks earlier, Chelsea allowed a motivated and in-form opponent to hang around until if finally cost them. A Blues side that had played on their back heels for more than 30 minutes finally gave up the 94th minute extra-time score that buried them. You could see the Chelsea defense just standing around as Woodgate blew right by in the center of the six-yard box and scored a 94th minute set-piece header. Only then did Grant finally bring on Joe Cole, but Ramos used his depth in defense to bring on defenders to close down the middle and not let Chelsea have any space to get off any shots in the box. Don’t let the advantage in shots-on-goal by Chelsea fool you; an overwhelming number of those shots came in the last 24 minutes of extra time. For most of the match it was Tottenham that was the superior scoring threat.
Juande Ramos won two UEFA Cups as manager of Seville of the Spanish Liga Primera. He is quickly gaining the kind of street cred that Mourinho had with both Porto and Chelsea before his unceremonious exit in September. Reportedly Grant has lost the locker room, and rumored infighting has the Blues rudderless and aimless. Games like this Mourinho didn’t lose, not when a trophy was at stake. Chelsea were outplayed and outmaneuvered by a team they had for the better part of two decades, owned. It speaks volumes about what Ramos has done in a short amount of time, and just what it is that Chelsea has lost since Mourinho’s departure…
…Roman Abramovich, meet Robert Kraft.