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03/04: Reports:

F.A. Cup Third Round Replay, 14/01/04, 7.45pm
Ho hum
By Matt Rowson

Ho hum.

This should be no surprise. After all, it's what everyone expected to happen, what was tacitly being written into the history books before the game kicked off. The surprise was the draw in the first game, a game we might even have won... and the enormity of that achievement was only underlined by the degree to which we were ultimately outclassed in this replay.

The contest endured roughly seven minutes into the game. During this seven minutes our performance was hugely encouraging, briefly igniting hopes of a repeat of the bravado and drama of the first encounter. As then, we aggressively piled forward from the off, and again Paul Devlin was prominent down the right, flinging a number of just-need-a-touch crosses as we forced a succession of corners. Chelsea's defending looked nervous initially; you'd have thought that they'd have been keen to deny us crossing opportunities given the events of the first leg, but several corner kicks were conceded under relatively light pressure.

This didn't last. Whether Chelsea realised that the absence of a human torpedo from our front line rendered such caution a little unnecessary, or whether their composure was regained by some other means, this period of pressure was not to be repeated.

Instead, Chelsea ventured upfield and broke the deadlock with virtually their first attack. The ball broke to Lampard outside the area... he can't have had much of a sight of goal but fired in a fierce shot which Pidgeley got a strong hand to but could only push back into the penalty area. Cox contested the loose ball with Hasselbaink and it broke to Ardley, in the right back position but facing the goal. Presumably he didn't know that he had space to turn and clear, otherwise there can have been no explanation for threading the ball back towards Lenny Pidgeley only for Adrian Mutu (or "Mooo Tooooo" as Chelsea's tannoy man inexplicably persisted) to stab the ball underneath the goalkeeper.

The Chelsea celebration was curtailed by a linesman's flag, prompting relief and no little jumping around in the away "end" (which stretched the length of the pitch and halfway behind one goal, slightly dissipating the atmosphere). Then another switch of mood as suddenly Chelsea were celebrating again following an officials' consultation and six thousand Watford fans felt rather silly.

The accuracy of the final decision is indisputable... one can only assume that the linesman had flagged for offside assuming that no Watford player could have played as brainless a backpass as Ardley did. At the time, however, confusion reigned and there was a very tangible sense of the fates being against us and the game already slipping away.

Here's the first big contrast with the first game. At Vicarage Road we got the early break... a bit of luck too, certainly, but a bit of luck that we played a big part in forcing. Chelsea were rattled and never quite recovered their poise. This time, Chelsea had their noses in front and were suddenly perfectly relaxed, effortlessly passing us into submission.

Marcus Gayle reprised his attempt to slice the ball over his own head and over Pidgeley into the net, the young keeper alert to the "clearance" on this occasion. Mario Melchiot followed suit, breaking through on the right before miscuing horribly, welcome light relief. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, looking aggressive and focused, twice came close from long range, the second such occasion giving Lennie Pidgeley cause to bawl at his defence. Alan Wiley called him up on this, presumably either for use of naughty words or for waking up the Chelsea Pensioners behind the goal, either of which would have been perfectly justifiable in the circumstances.

Our two weakest points were quickly identified... Neal Ardley's lack of pace is his one major limitation as a fullback, and he was evidently conscious of this too. So in fear was he of being skinned that whenever Joe Cole received possession in acres of space and you nervously sought his marker, he could generally be found about fifteen yards closer to the goal trying to read Cole's movement. So far away was he that Cole never had any obstacle to coming inside on his right foot, which he did frequently.

The second weakness was that when we did regain possession and start to build, Bruce Dyer was so short of support from a tentative midfield that his job became completely thankless; holding off the not inconsiderable presence of John Terry and either waiting for distant support or trying to turn and run. This he managed more often than you'd credit, but his performance overall was strong and competent rather than lunatic as Heidar's dominant first leg showing. We needed more.

But we regained our footing and started to make incursions back towards Chelsea's goal. Jamie Hand first caught the attention in this period... first being harshly penalised as Frank Lampard went to ground rather easily, and secondly less harshly penalised as he made sure that Lampard knew what a proper tackle felt like a minute later. The look of surprise and indignation on the midfielder's face as he hit the turf was almost worth the concession of a free kick.

Our recovery was underlined as Dyer again received the ball with his back to goal, turned and stumbled through a challenge on the right hand side of the area. He lost possession under another challenge only for Jamie Hand to scuff his way through and dig out a low shot that beat Cudicini but hit the post. For a midfielder whose attempts at goal rarely end up anywhere near the target this was some achievement, and the fates were rather cruel in not sending the ball into the net.

At which point, Chelsea quelled the mini-upsurgence by scoring again. It's tempting to blame Marcus Gayle for being caught flat-footed, one of the few occasions when his relative lack of defensive experience has been critical. The fact is, however, that in the First Division the number of centre-backs who can drop a ball over a defence as accurately as Gallas did can be counted on precisely no fingers. Hasselbaink was around Gayle, and rolled the ball into the rather too large gap to Pidgeley's right. Two-nil at half time.

The second half was really a matter of how many Chelsea wanted. Their Premiership credentials might be thrown into question by their tendency to go to sleep for periods of a game (or for entire matches), but they're still way better, due to however-many-zillion pound investment, to good management, to better players, whatever, but better than most of the Premiership and therefore better than us also.

Our forays were spasmodic, and rarely generated more than suggestions of a goalscoring opportunity. A free kick on the right was swung in by Cook, only for Cox to be eased away from meeting the cross at the far post. Where's Neil Sullivan when you need him? Then some bullish play from Jack Smith down the left saw Lee Cook snap in a shot which was blocked, Bruce Dyer impossibly holding up the ball in the area under robust challenge, ultimately by lying on top of it, Gavin Mahon receiving his lay-off, checking and rolling a ball through just wide of Cudicini's left hand post. John Terry led the protests at Dyer's means of protecting possession, but given that some question marks hang over how Dyer ended up on the floor in the first place he might have done better to let it lie.

Fitzgerald and Webber were introduced for Dyer and Cook to little ultimate effect, although Fitz twice pulled off his party-trick of using his surprising acceleration to dispose Cudicini of possession, on neither occasion getting on the end of his block quickly enough to make it hurt.

At the other end, Jack Smith again did an admirable job of looking after Jesper Gronkjaer... for a young right-sided defender, he isn't half doing a convincing job as a left back. Gronkjaer got his quota of one decent cross into the far post which Chelsea wasted, Cole slicing over.

We lasted half-an-hour of the second period with the score stuck at 2-0, which would have been a very respectable way for us to finish the evening, all things considered. Alas, not so... Adrian Mooo Toooooo dragged Joe Cole's pass out of the air, edged sideways and curled a right foot shot around Neil Cox (no small feat in itself) and inside Pidgeley's left hand post.

The biggest disappointment about this evening was that, in contrast to the first game, Chelsea did have things rather their own way. The Watford side never laid down exactly, but nor was there the inspiring and chest-beating inyerfaceness of the Vicarage Road game.

With one exception. Stand up Jamie Hand. But only if you want to. And no, I'm not looking at you. The third goal was a prelude to a five minute Jamie rampage which saw him chase the ball around the midfield, beating the ball from opponent to opponent with increasing disregard for the stature of his victims. "Choose your booking carefully, Jamie..." murmured Loz. An accurate statement, but not particularly insightful as the next development was visible from some distance.

The Jamie Hand Booking
It's harsh but not entirely inaccurate to observe that Jamie's most impressive performance of the season so far inevitably came in the game during which we saw least of the ball. His relatively poor form since August seems to have come hand in hand (sorry) with an improved disciplinary record... he had this, his fifth booking, by mid-October last time around.

So this was kind of fitting, even encouraging. Some neat Watford play saw Scott Fitzgerald receive the ball in a semi-threatening position wide on the left (and, a small mercy, right in front of us...). He was rudely dispossessed by William Gallas, obviously in confident mood by now, who bullied both player and ball into touch. And then found his ankles wrapped around his neck.

Jamie's cameo, following the yellow card, was a bloody-minded charge into the penalty area which saw him bludgeon his way through at least one tackle that Paul Devlin, for example, might have reacted otherwise to, before being pulled up for handball and requiring treatment. This may have been the result of a revenge hack by Gallas of which it would be difficult to be too critical... whether as a result of the knock or to save him from his first ever red card (yes, really), Hand was replaced by Lloyd Doyley shortly afterwards. Gallas limped off too, his ego as bruised as everything else.

By this time Damien Duff was involved, which was as far from what we needed at this juncture as anything that I can think of. As another Watford attack broke down he received the ball in the centre of the park, and scampered towards goal. Lloyd Doyley, as terrified as everyone else, was dragged inside from right back leaving Duff with the relatively simple task of slipping in the now lonely Gudjohnsen who rubbed salt in the wound by smacking the ball first time into the net from outside the area without needing his clear run on goal.

There was still time for Chelsea to come close to a fifth as Gudjohnsen headed wide from Lampard's left-wing cross before the game finished and left us with the consolation that Chelsea, not us, will have to find a way of getting to Scarborough by 12.30 next Saturday.

Except, actually, there's more consolation than that. We were outclassed, certainly, but only after a furious draw at home which is more than many Premiership sides will manage (5-0 wasn't it, Wolves? Ha!).

And that's without even taking into consideration the plentiful reminders of our Premiership season that leave you quite grateful for at least some aspects of our lot. Like only having to be roundly patronized once or twice a season rather than every week. Like not having to put up with someone telling you that putting a greasy burger in a plastic box makes it, like, classy, and charging you accordingly. Like not having to put up with away ends where seats have been rammed in so ruthlessly that you need to stand up every two minutes to keep your circulation going. Like not having to be deafened by a tannoy system that only the big clubs could afford (or want - classy, again). Like not being ripped off for tickets - 25 is discounted, y'know. Like not getting toyed with and picked off every second week.

Right. Bring on the Palace.