The article first appeared on The Huffington Post (UK) here
Chelsea supporters could be forgiven for thinking that in hindsight, the embarrassment of that humiliating FA Cup Round 4 loss to Bradford could well be the most timely potion that destiny could have provided Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho. For a coach who is not the biggest advocate of player rotation, slightly less tired legs of his chosen few could well prove to be the difference in May.
But the script played out slightly differently on a tempestuous Tuesday night – and every limb of the Blue army found itself drained completely out of the last ounce of juice after a massively physical 120 minutes of battle with Liverpool in the second leg of League Cup semi final.
It couldn’t have taken any less to book a place in the March 6 final at Wembley.
If blood and sheer guts in the matches of recent years between these bitter rivals is said to be a legacy of Luis Garcia’s ghost goal in the Champions League semi-final in 2005, this was raising it a notch higher.
Despite Mourinho asking his supporters to stay clear of abusive chants about Steven Gerrard, a bit of that could be heard even before the first kick of the match. The visiting stands fell not much behind in letting the world know what they thought of Costa. Mourinho clashed furiously with the officials over many decisions; the two benches clashed occasionally; the referee clearly lost the plot by a series of curious decisions (including a clear penalty shout against Skrtel’s tackle on Costa); and the players ran, tackled, fell, rose up, shot and ran like this was the last match ever to be played.
Each one of the 38 tackles by Liverpool and 28 by Chelsea was hard and uncompromising – nine of which led to yellow cards. It was breathless tenacity and steel at show in every corner of the pitch.
The nature and intensity of the game was summed up in typical Mourinho style after the match when he praised the game’s only goal scorer Branislav Ivanovic:
‘He has lots of blood and the boot is completely full of red blood and it should go straight to the (Chelsea youth) academy.’
Yes, it was that kind of the match.
Almost entirely because the Chelsea team that took the field were clear in the head: Either we play great football and win or we play our last football and win. They managed the former in flashes, but eventually won because Liverpool couldn’t climb and cross the possessed Chelsea bodies.
Brendon Rogers believes otherwise and almost accused Chelsea of playing it bad. In his post-match interaction with media, he said that Chelsea striker Diego Costa ‘doesn’t need to stamp he’s top class’ – a barely veiled dig at the fiery Spaniard for two incidents of, what it looked on camera, deliberate stamping by him. The Liverpool bench believed that the Costa’s studs on Emre Can and Martin Skrtel were worthy of red card.
Mourinho appeared to be livid with that interpretation. But he couldn’t have cared less really. As Petr Cech put it before the match, tonight was a chance ‘to clean up the mess’. The world cannot expect a Bradford to beat Mourinho’s team at home and the team to not react. And further reaction there would be – as January 31 promises the season-deciding showdown in the Premier League.
Current league holders Manchester City should not be surprised if on January 31 they meet a Chelsea team that plays both freely because it is relieved of some pressure and angrily because it feels that the world is responsible for its defeat at the hands of Bradford in FA Cup.