Noise and colour
By Matt Rowson
Let's get the obvious out of the way and done with. Our entire squad cost less than a quarter, in terms of transfer fees, of what Chelsea paid Parma for Adrian Mutu. We could get absolutely stuffed here. No shit, Sherlock.
There, done. You didn't really need me to tell you that, and much as this preview wouldn't be entirely balanced if the point wasn't made, please consider the point made and the subject covered and closed.
Apart from anything else, the game ain't going to be much fun if we just sit back and idly ponder how many goals Chelsea are going to put past us. Worse still, an absolute stuffing might potentially override the knowledge that this is a one-off game against a different class of opposition and seep into our subsequent league form. Which would be a Bad Thing.
We do have a chance. However small, whether you put the odds on a win or even a draw as long as one in twenty, one in a hundred or even longer, that chance is there. What matters is what can be done to make those odds as favourable as possible.
As far as our visitors' actions are concerned, the portents are probably as positive as they can be. The odds on us getting something shorten if Chelsea come into this assuming that the game's already won... and the fact that Lenny Pidgeley is being allowed to play whereas other Blues loanees such as Smertin, Cole, Zenden and Forssell have been prohibited from facing their employers in the Premiership can only be a good sign. The official line is that Pidgeley wouldn't be a first-team squad member at Stamford Bridge anyway but I'm not sure how much water that holds... if the likes of Zenden and Cole were at the front of Ranieri's immediate plans, he would hardly have sent them out on loan.
Another sign that's probably encouraging, if a little perversely so, is Ranieri's stated intention to employ his first team squad in all competitions... and with the Champions' (sic) League not lumbering into action again until the end of February and Chelsea out of the Carling Cup, there seems little cause to doubt his word. The point being that whilst any permutation of Chelsea's first team squad is likely to be too good for us, we'd probably have a difficult time against the less vaunted backup names of Keenan, Kneissl, Di Cesare and so on as well. The difference would be that there could be little doubting the motivation of these lesser names to bust a gut against Watford. Our hope lies in a repeat of the flouncing, complacent performances of the likes of Flo and Deschamps in 1999, still so fresh and enjoyable in the memory. Many of the Chelsea squad have won European Competitions or national titles... a cup tie against a lower division side on the soggy mess that our pitch has become is hardly going to be the pinnacle of anyone's career.
Off the pitch, there's perhaps a straw to grasp in the stands as well. There are parallels in our recent past to what has recently happened at Chelsea... the upside of unprecedented investment in the playing squad is exciting names, increased profile, increased expectations. A downside (beyond the side not delivering and nearly bankrupting the club...), particularly when a revamp of the squad is involved, is the distancing of the support from the whole thing. One Chelsea fan's site thoughtfully talks of the fans being "sidelined" by the transformation of their club into a "rich man's hobby". Whilst the alternative, probable administration, might have been even less attractive, the bond between the side and the support is probably not a strong as it could be (or might become again, in time). Which means that they might be quicker to turn on the side if things go wrong; the second half against Pompey aside, the Blues have hardly been in the best of form of late.
As far as our own performance is concerned, it goes without saying that everyone needs to be on their game. In particular, that means Gavin Mahon reprising his monstrous, trampling performance of Sunday and Paul Devlin occupying Wayne Bridge as persistently as Steve Stone did for Pompey - the floodgates only opened once Stone was injured. Further, while it would be na´ve to assume that we could recreate Charlton's recent startling performance, it can nonetheless be instructive, and it's interesting to note that the Blues didn't react terribly well to being denied any space. Jamie Hand on the bench at least, I suspect, and preferably back on his game with a return to the 4-4-2 that suits him best.
In goal for Chelsea will either be Carlo Cudicini or Neil Sullivan. Cudicini is arguably the best shot stopper in the country, but isn't the best at organising his defence and his occasional nervousness on crosses was exposed in the Charlton game. He missed the win over Pompey with a thigh strain, if he hasn't recovered then former Spurs and Wimbledon veteran Sullivan will continue to deputise with one of the lower profile summer recruits, Marco Ambrosio, on the bench.
Right-back will either be Glen Johnson or Mario Melchiot. The attacking Johnson started all of Chelsea's Carling Cup ties if that's any guide; Melchiot is probably the stronger defensively but still seems to be thought of as a weak link in the back four. Wayne Bridge will play left back, facing us for the third time in nine months and still sounding like a small village in Yorkshire. His main rival for the left back slot, Celestine Babayaro, has been out with an injury.
In the centre, popular wisdom is that you can perm any two from Terry, Desailly and Gallas and come out with a first class central pairing... Chelsea's record, not to mention the messageboard consensus, doesn't quite bear that out. Marcel Desailly in his prime was one of the best defenders in the world, but at thirty-five his best seems to be behind him - nor has he shaken the "big game Charlie" tag that he's had since his arrival. John Terry was arguably the most impressive player on show in Chelsea's demolition job during the pre-season friendly; as for his best partner, Chelsea have started nine Premiership games with William Gallas and conceded just one goal, scored by ex-Hornet Jermaine Pennant at Leeds. In the ten games which Gallas hasn't started, Chelsea have shipped fifteen goals. Nor should talented but brutal German youngster Robert Huth be discounted... he's also featured in the league cup games.
In the absence of Damien Duff, out with a dislocated shoulder, Chelsea's main problem in midfield is a lack of genuine wide options - which is probably why Jesper Gronkjaer appears to be a fixture for the moment. The Dane is ridiculously quick, and ripped Robbo to shreds in the pre-season game, but has a less than consistent end product. With Veron and Petit also injured, Chelsea's options in midfield aren't as plentiful as one might expect. The two choices for the wide positions would appear to be to either play Geremi on the right and Gronkjaer on the left, or to bring in Joe Cole on the left and play Gronkjaer down the right. In the centre, the pendulum Makelele and on form Frank Lampard appear to be certs, unless Mario Stanic gets wheeled out again.
Up front, the talented Adrian Mutu appears to already be hugely popular, despite his well-publicised goal drought of late. Less so Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, who whilst probably suited to a side where he's the single attacking focus for everything to aim for, is looking out of place in the New Chelsea, his lack of contribution off the ball making him unpopular. Then there's Hernan Crespo, out with a sinus problem of late but used to a loftier stage than Vicarage Road (even if he's never seen anything quite like Sean Dyche before...), whilst Eidur Gudjohnsen we could probably do without... much as we've faced him and contained him in his younger days with Bolton, he, more than any of his rivals for a regular berth, probably has a lot to play for.
So everything needs to be right, then, for us to stand anything like a realistic chance. That goes for off the pitch too, of course, there's a responsibility on us as well. To make it as loud and boisterous as possible, to not settle into the drowsiness symptomatic of early kick offs (which Chelsea appear to be particularly susceptible to, incidentally), but to keep the noise and the colour going.
If we are going to go down, we can go down fighting. And then maybe, just maybe, we won't go down at all.