Sport Premier League

Saturday 16 December 2017

Ferguson’s words fall on deaf ears as Chelsea sound their title charge

Drogba’s brilliance and Lampard’s rediscovered taste for battle offer the perfect riposte to United manager’s verbal sparring

James Lawton at Stamford Bridge

IT was certainly worth a try by Manchester United. It so often is, after all, but then not all of their announcements rejecting the concept of defeat are taken at face value.

Certainly the one that came at high noon on Saturday wasn’t. Chelsea, it was clear enough here 24 hours later, had simply not been listening.

They didn’t so much dismiss the messages of intent coming out of the north. They gathered them together as though they were scraps of waste paper and they made a great bonfire.

Seven goals, even against a team so bereft of anything resembling their best values as this Stoke City, represented rather more than a bullish shout of confidence. They were a tide of self-belief, one inspired by some individual performances of assurance which at times reached stunning dimensions.

According to Alex Ferguson, his pursuit of a fourth straight title had been sharply assisted by the overwhelming of Spurs at Old Trafford and the psychological barrage it would surely send in the direction of Carlos Ancelotti and his men.

But Ancelotti, who has also known a little pressure from time to time, merely shrugged his shoulders. Even more importantly, his players seemed utterly unperturbed by the latest battle cries from Old Trafford.

Additional suggestions that they might grievously miss their captain, John Terry, at this critical point were summarily dismissed. Terry, suspended after his sending-off in the disconcerting collapse against Spurs the previous weekend, has been somewhat less than a warrior of defiance in recent weeks. Indeed, some believed that in his unravelling of confidence was to be found the most serious evidence that Chelsea were a team in the process of breaking up at the worst possible time.

Yesterday that looked like the last word in wishful Old Trafford thinking. Chelsea were not under pressure. They were under a spell and it is one which, all evidence insists, seems likely to hold long enough to carry them back to the top of English football. This destruction of Stoke, certainly, carried an aura – and the one of champions of England seemed potentially reasonable enough.

When Salomon Kalou raced to a hat-trick, when Dider Drogba showed some breathtaking moments of penetrative brilliance, when Frank Lampard regained much of his trademarked relish for battle and scored two goals, we had a series of statements that here was a team regaining the kind of momentum that had been so impressive for so much of a season that had suddenly, even mysteriously, begun to dwindle.

There was, we had to remember, a challenge that went rather deeper than merely subduing the muscular anti-football of Stoke, and if Chelsea had felt under heavy pressure on an afternoon of symbolically fitful sunshine and dark clouds, they would not have been the first to submit to the Fergie psycho babble.

At Old Trafford United had been able to build on the desperately late but hugely welcome authority supplied by Paul Scholes the previous weekend against City, Nani’s exquisitely weighted goal not only draining the last of Spurs’ fight but also meeting perfectly the demand made on the last two standing in the title race.

Whoever takes the title, we have known ever since the English game was banished from the climactic stages of the Champions League that they will have to brace themselves for a substantial measure of faint praise. But what Nani did, and Chelsea were called to do in this game, was suggest that these two teams still retain sufficient quality to put them back among the serious contenders in Europe.

First though, there was the small matter of the principal prize of what we still like to think of the richest, most talent-laden and competitive league in the world.

Chelsea could hardly have done more to reassert their status as favourites. It was not just a matter of overwhelming a Stoke City team who had won much praise for their belligerence, their long throws and their undoubted fortitude away from their own ground. Such qualities shrivelled in the heat of Chelsea’s effort, inevitably, because what we saw here was not merely a division of class but another concept, and another set of means, applied to the question of how you play the game.

Eventually, Florent Malouda scored, as did the substitute Daniel Sturridge, and this was in the Frenchman’s case something more than an intrusion into the glory of Kalou and the superb bite produced so devastatingly by Drogba, a level of operation that left Stoke’s strung-out defenders – never fewer than five in a constantly dissolving block – wishing to be elsewhere.

If Malouda felt invited to play a less conspicuous role with the deployment of both Drogba and Nicolas Anelka and the return of Michael Ballack as a deep-lying midfielder, it was another idea that was swept aside by the sheer volume of Chelsea’s attacking instincts.

Malouda was just one striking point of difference between two teams operating on entirely different levels but there was something about his assurance which spoke of the Chelsea that had made such inroads into the confidence of all their rivals earlier this season.

Liverpool, even if they are merely playing from memory at Anfield next weekend, can be expected to make more of a challenge than the remains of a fighting force once known as Stoke City. However, Ancelotti will surely draw confidence from the fact that once again he appears to have a team who believe in themselves. It was a rediscovery he will no doubt place above every shout of mere propaganda.

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