Date: 26 December 2016
Many neutrals would have expected Chelsea, already on a run of 11 consecutive victories in the Premier league, to beat the Cherries by a lot more than three goals today and – given the nature of those goals – we were able to leave Stamford Bridge at 5 o’clock with heads held high.
My main concern in advance of this match had been how on earth to get to Chelsea on a day when there were no South West Trains and there was no District Line either! I needn’t have worried. The buses to Hatton Cross may not have been running, but I was able to drive there – on fairly empty roads – in just 21 minutes; the car park was near empty; and they were only charging £5 to park for the whole day. Even better, I then discovered that London Underground recognise my Senior Railcard (I didn’t know that), so it doesn’t cost much to get around by tube. And Earls Court Station, on the Piccadilly Line which was running, is just a simple 15 minutes’ walk from Stamford Bridge.
Unfortunately the Exiles-nominated pub was 15 minutes’ walk the other side of the ground! But a very good pub it was. (Unlike almost every other pub in the area, it welcomes away fans.) And they coped very well with the large number of customers there pre-match: whilst one barman was fetching my drinks, three others attempted to serve me! The food came very quickly too. And it was here in the pub that we first learned of the slightly surprising team line-up. No wingers (Stanislas, Ibe and Fraser all on the bench; Pugh and Gradel left out altogether). And what looked like rather a lot of defenders. Finally we figured, correctly as it turned out, that the system was 5-3-2 (or 5-3-1-1 in the sense that Wilshere was tucked in behind King, in a ‘number 10’ role). The two Smiths were wing-backs, and Daniels had joined Francis and Cook to adopt the role of third centre-half. In fact, this system worked rather well; it certainly gave us the edge for a while as Chelsea clearly hadn’t prepared for it. Howe had come up with a system that matched Chelsea, and in the end we adopted it until half way through the second half when we reverted to our more familiar (of late) 4-2-3-1.
So, we played very well for 20 minutes or so; our main goal scoring chances falling to the very busy Wilshere, though Brad Smith was having a good game too. But the goal that eventually gave Chelsea the lead (on 24 minutes) was a masterstroke by Pedro, who somehow turned and curled the ball into the top left corner of the net from distance – giving Boruc no chance. This was deservedly applauded by both sets of fans, (ours, immediately behind this goal, could see just how brilliant it was,) but it remained the only difference between the sides until the stroke of half time when we won a free kick in a very favourable position. Unfortunately Adam Smith slammed his shot straight into the wall. Half time: 1-0.
The second half began much like the first, the Cherries again looking lively, but disaster struck after just four minutes when Francis brought down the goal scorer – Pedro – in the area, and Hazard (who’d been absolutely brilliant all afternoon) made no mistake with the ensuing penalty kick. This was the worst of times for Chelsea to go 2-0 up, and Eddie would later refer to it as the turning point of the game.
But still we weren’t down and out. When Afobe came on for King he announced his presence with a charging run, and was fed a beautiful ball by (that man again!) Wilshere when he was already through on goal; but his shot was kept out by the Chelsea goalie’s outstretched right leg. Wilshere himself had more chances to score before we switched to 4-2-3-1, Wilshere flanked by Ibe and the returning Stanislas, until he went down with an injury after we’d made all three substitutions. Wilshere had no choice but to play on to the end, but was ineffective from now on. Three minutes were added on by the referee, and it was right at the end of this time – in virtually the last kick of the game – that Pedro, having run half the length of the pitch, put in a shot. It was deflected into the goal by Steve Cook but was probably going in anyway. 3-0, but we won’t face tougher opposition all season.
The team lined up as follows at the start of the game (I've given the players marks out of ten):
A Smith (7), Francis (6), S Cook (7), Daniels (7), B Smith (8);
Gosling (7), Surman (6), Arter (6);
A Smith, Francis, S Cook, Daniels;
Ibe, Wilshere, Stanislas;