Nearly but not quite – just like the Liverpool game, but against a much better side we came even closer to getting something. Chelsea, however, are surely on their way to the title after their tenth straight win, albeit by the narrowest of margins.
As our minibus came over the top of Houghton Cut, we commented that the traffic was lighter than expected, yet the driver took a panic when it backed up to Stoneygate and decided, under advice from someone born there, to go via Ryhope. Turns out they might have been born there, but left aged three. So we saw Ryhope, Hendon, Sunderland Town Moor – including the spot where one of the UK’s first Siberian Accentors (a spuggie) had shown up a few weeks before. We made the kick-off Bradley Lowery having scored his goal, and watched as four changes were announced to our team.
Jones Kone O’Shea Papy PVA
Normally, I don’t hold with the tactic of setting up your team depending on how the opposition sets their up – let them worry about us, not vice versa – but this was Chelsea, and they’ve been chewing up and spitting out opponents for a few months now. O’Shea’s experience against Costa could be vital, so we kicked off south with Defoe alone up front but with close support through the middle from a returning Borini. A continuation of his scoring run against his old club would have been very welcome, and we were quite bright from the off.
With Jones and PVA pushing up to negate the threat of Moses and (our old boy) Alonso, Jones in particular saw plenty of the ball in the Chelsea half. One good run saw him get in a cross that swerved towards goal – but not enough.
Some folks moaned at our negativity in starting with five centre halves, but I think most of us accepted that Kirchhoff, despite his height, was no centre half within five minutes of his appearance at Spurs last season. Denayer has been playing midfield (ironically in Kirchhoff’s role) for most of this season, so I think that three centre halves is more accurate. O’Shea was doing exactly what we thought he would, and was doing his best to get on Costa’s wires, while Kone and Papy did what they could to break up the passing through our defence that Chelsea tried to do. Costa did get on the end of an Alonso cross but, to the delight of the homes crowd, the effort was less Nou Camp than Sunday morning and spun harmlessly up in the air and wide. We were holding the free-passing visitors at bay, meaning little work for Pickford, and managed to release Januzaj in the inside right channel. Perhaps he shimmied once too often, but by the time he’d made the space for the shot, he could only scoop it wide of their right hand post rather than curl it in. Shame - at least that’s what I think Defoe was shouting from that unmarked space at the far post.
Pedro was on the end of another slick series of Chelsea passes, but Pickford was down super-sharp to turn it away – offside anyway. Just when we were thinking that half time was only five minutes away (which it was) and all we had to do was to keep it tight (which we didn’t) they scored. After all his good work, Jones headed it to nobody in particular on halfway, KAnte left a stream of our defenders lying in their wake as they dived in, and Fabregas was there on the edge of the box as he swept it across the field. He passed it in, really, just inside Pickford’s left-hand post, and that was just about that. For all their possession, that was their first legitimate effort on target, and it seemed to rattle us.
O’Shea was rightly booked for taking Costa’s legs away in the D, but the free-kick clipped someone’s head in the wall, which took the sting out of it, and Pickford collected fairly comfortably under the bar. Just the one added minute, which was probably for Will I An rolling about every time he was challenged.
No changes for the second half, at least in terms of personnel, but Borini and Januzaj traded places with almost immediate effect. A through ball took a nice deflection off the ref’s head and we played Januzaj through in the inside right position, but Courtois stood his ground and got his toe to the shot. A corner, which sort of ended our bright start, as Chelsea got hold of the ball. Will I An worked a shooting position and saw his effort take a deflection that had Pickford struggling, but it hit the bar. Costa was next into a dangerous position, but as he galloped into the box Kone did one of those shoulder-charges that used to be so common. No penalty, despite his claims to the contrary, but they had plenty of chances to score after that – none of their efforts gave Pickford much bother, though, as they were mostly straight at him or wide of the target. Papy also produced an acrobatic clearance to deny Chelsea, and O’Shea put in some good challenges.
With Kirchhoff struggling to return to the level of performance we saw last season, he was replaced by Seb to add a bit of energy to the centre of our midfield. He’d not been on long when we broke down the right and cut it back for Jones to shoot. Unfortunately, he did a Borini (remember his last game, at Southampton?) in that he skied his effort and knackered himself in the process. Off he went, to be replaced by Donald Love – and despite the consternation expressed by sections of the crowd at his appearance, he had a canny game, getting forward well and putting in some decent crosses.
For the last ten, Borini – who’d been booked – was replaced by Khazri, and the Morrocan showed a few of the touches and turns that we’d got used to last season. He played in Papy on the left wing (aye, I know, but we were chasing the game) and his cross found Denayer – but the header was easy for Courtois. We won a couple of corners, and a couple of free-kicks on our left. Seb territory, and while he played one short and we fluffed it, the next was more of what we’re used to, and Chelsea couldn’t get it away. It fell to PVA, who touched it left to find space for a shot and saw their keeper tip the swerving effort away with his fingertips as we made ready to celebrate the equaliser.
Three added minutes included this effort, and we couldn’t do anything of consequence. The whistle went, and Costa, who’d been given a good old battering by O’Shea, immediately shook the Irishman’s hand – which shows that he’s not always the pantomime baddie he’s made out to be. Give him a hard game and he appreciate the battle.
Not a bad performance against the best team in the league, and you have to wonder what might have been had we not made a few daft mistakes – one of which we couldn’t recover from. There was plenty of time to discuss the evening’s goings-on, as the driver decided, after a tour of the town that brought us back to the roundabout at the south end of the bridge, to have another look at Ryhope. Some of us called him names.
Man of the Match? Probably O’Shea for the way he marshalled the defence and did a job on Costa.
Keep the Faith – at least everybody else down among the dead man lost as well.
ALS T Shirts click here