Perhaps Graeme Souness is right and these are the good old days. Newcastle's manager had suggested last week that in 20 years' time we might be looking back at the current epoch as a golden period in English club football. Watching the quality of Chelsea's play in the second half at Stamford Bridge yesterday lunchtime, those pessimists who believe the old game is going to hell in a handcart would have been forced to conclude that there is something to be said for it after all.
Ultimately, judgement may come to depend on whether Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool and any others - Newcastle would normally be the next club mentioned in the list - can live with Jose Mourinho's team over 90 minutes, let alone a full season. "Are you watching, Arsenal?" the home crowd inevitably enquired as the second goal went in yesterday. They probably were at that stage, an hour before kick-off in north London, before deciding to concentrate on their own task; there is nothing Arsène Wenger can do about Chelsea until next Sunday at Highbury and he badly needs his team to make a bold statement then.
The red hordes will have to hope that it is the Chelsea of yesterday's first half, not the second, who turn up in a week's time. Lunchtime kick-off or not, they were sluggish for an hour, and gained surprisingly little joy from the wide-boys, Damien Duff and Arjen Robben, against a pair of stand-in full-backs. Petr Cech, in goal, had to make two good saves from free-kicks by Laurent Robert and Chelsea would have been in further trouble had Rob Styles not shown great clemency to Ricardo Carvalho, pardoning a trip and a push on Craig Bellamy when he had already been booked.
But Mourinho took the bold option, making three attacking substitutions before the hour was up, and fortune favoured him, as it does too often for coincidence. Within seven minutes of the changes being made, Chelsea had scored twice. Poor defending, rather than tactical genius, Souness suggested; a little of each, in reality, though there was sympathy for him when his side conceded two more goals in the final few minutes to distort the scoreline but enhance the leaders' remarkable run of scoring. It is 14 goals in four Premiership games now and 23 in seven.
"The first half was a difficult game for us," said Mourinho's assistant, Steve Clarke, who once held the same position at Newcastle. "But we defended well and kept a good shape and got the reward for that in the second half."
Souness said: "We matched them for an hour and are still a bit shell-shocked."
With Stephen Carr, Andy O'Brien and Olivier Bernard all missing from their back line, it seemed unlikely that the visitors would hold out for 90 minutes. For more than half that time, they were surprisingly comfortable, and the home side's one real chance before the interval even stemmed from a defensive howler. The accident-prone Titus Bramble, receiving a short throw from his goalkeeper, gave Ronny Johnsen a pass in a dangerous position, the Norwegian's heavy touch allowing Eidur Gudjohnsen to bear down on goal before he chipped carelessly wide.
It was a desire for greater physical presence in attack, rather than that miss, that prompted Mourinho to put on Didier Drogba in place of Gudjohnsen for the second half. Cech's second good save from Robert, a low one to match the parry in the top corner earlier on, encouraged further changes on the hour, Mateja Kezman replacing Tiago and Wayne Bridge taking over from William Gallas, whose weakness on his left foot had repeatedly been exposed when he pushed forward.
As Clarke said: "Jose's a manager who thinks about the game and substitutions are very important for him. They were positive ones, we made our intentions clear." Their dissatisfaction, too, it might be said. The results were spectacular, two goals in the next seven minutes deciding the game as Chelsea swept forward in what was effectively a 4-2-4 formation.
In the most fluent move of the game, Frank Lampard first knocked Robben's pass to Claude Makelele, then darted into position to collect Drogba's accurate header and drive it beyond Shay Given. The England midfielder was then denied by a smart save but immediately dropped deeper to send a long ball forward that Bramble failed miserably to deal with, allowing Drogba past him for a first goal since the end of September. "I'm back," Drogba bawled at the cameras.
Stamford Bridge desperately wanted Kezman to have the opportunity for personal celebration as well. In the 71st minute, as Robben and Duff tore a demoralised defence apart again, he smacked a shot against the inside of a post. "I almost cried for him," Clarke said, but there would be laughter later, amid a wretched finish to the day for Newcastle. Duff and Robben, both flying now, broke out once more, the Irishman feeding the Dutchman for a dribble past Lee Bowyer and Aaron Hughes to score the third goal.
Robben had been presented before the game with his award as the Premiership's Player of the Month; by those closing minutes, the Manager of the Month had ceased prowling the technical area and was sitting back with arms folded in the dug-out. He stood up only to indicate that Kezman should take the last-minute penalty, after Given fouled Duff, that brought his first Premiership goal at last. Job done, with a bonus or two as well.Reuse content