LONDON -- Three observations from Chelsea's 2-2 Premier League draw against West Brom at Stamford Bridge.
Referee to the rescue
This was not supposed to happen to a Jose Mourinho team at Stamford Bridge. It had never happened before. And it still hasn’t. Which is cruel on West Brom. It must register as a terrible injustice. They deserved better than Andre Marriner’s final-seconds decision to award a soft penalty.
Ramires was clearly trying to win the penalty. He looked for Steven Reid, then found him, and Marriner fell for it. From the spot, Eden Hazard scored an equaliser that Mourinho did not even celebrate.
The escape was undeserved. Had Goran Popov kept the ball in the corner rather than trying to shoot in time added on, they might not have had another chance. But it came, by foul means rather than fair.
The spine that has supported Chelsea for near on a decade had creaked arthritically. Frank Lampard’s legs could not cover the ground anymore. John Terry was culpable for both Baggies goals, and Petr Cech, painfully slow in reacting, was hugely at fault for Stephane Sessegnon’s goal, the Baggies’ second.
That trio were playing in August 2004 when a run of 65 Premier League undefeated home games began with a 1-0 victory against Manchester United. Lampard was back on the bench by the time Sessegnon scored, and West Brom’s counterattack came though territory where he might have been.
Ten days ago, Chelsea looked to be hitting the cruise control that brought multiple success in the first Mourinho era. Now, they look vulnerable. The fortress was very nearly conquered.
They pushed for an equaliser, but not in the irresistibly crashing waves of classic Chelsea. Boaz Myhill produced a wonderful scooping save from Branislav Ivanovic, but, in truth, Chelsea had lacked creativity all afternoon.
Their first was a result of an error by Baggies defender Liam Ridgewell at the end of the first half. Ridgewell could have been forgiven for dozing. It was a half with qualities to cure acute insomnia. A swing of Samuel Eto’o’s boot woke him from his reverie, and Myhill’s rage served as a further jolt.
Two goals from errors -- one from an opponent, the other from a referee. Chelsea got very lucky.
Hazard fails to light
Hazard’s midweek excursion to Lille cost him a start against Schalke after a misplaced passport delayed his return. Yet he still got to start while Juan Mata’s posterior remained rooted in a cushioned blue airline seat.
And Mata has produced moments of wonder for Chelsea, where Hazard has truly yet to. Perhaps the visit to his former club was an attempt to revive his former magic as the kingpin of Flanders football. At Lille, Hazard was the central playmaker, given licence to roam where his creative instincts took him.
Mourinho has kept Hazard in the position where Roberto Di Matteo and Rafa Benitez housed him, a left flank where he is still not entirely comfortable. It was his shot across Myhill that led to Ridgewell’s error, but he still does not seem a Mourinho player, just as his Chelsea career has yet to take off properly.
This was a player coveted across Europe’s giants, one who cost top dollar after a LeBron James-style beauty parade was staged by the Belgian. He was voted in last season’s PFA Team of the Year to reveal a professional respect for his abilities, but there is still something unfulfilled about him as a Chelsea player. Mata, and now Oscar, have the position that was his at Lille, and both look superior passers while he has become something of soloist. Oscar has the role at the moment because of his willingness to track back -- although Mourinho was visibly angry when he did not do so for West Brom’s second and swiftly removed him for Mata.
Earlier in the second half, a long Oscar ball had found Hazard charging through, but here was an embarrassing reminder that he is hugely one-footed. The right foot, the wrong foot to receive the ball, was swung, and the ball looped into Myhill’s hands. Any semblance of being ambidextrous would have allowed the left to kill the ball and the right to score -- and let the game finish as a contest.
Within minutes, Long had equalised. That will not have gone unnoticed by a manager for whom Hazard has yet to show much of his best. Scoring the penalty is the least that is expected of him.
Clarke’s happy homecoming denied
"There was a Steve Clarke before Steve Clarke the coach appeared," said Steve Clarke last week. Steve Clarke was once Steve Clarke the Chelsea full-back who, from 1987, played 421 matches for the club in the days when Stamford Bridge used to double as a car park. Those were the days of John Bumstead and David Speedie, and Clarke was a Zelig figure in the club’s development through the next two decades.
He played in the squad that got relegated to the old Second Division in 1988 and was the sole survivor to play in the Ruud Gullit era almost a decade later. Clarke was the man selected to be the bridge to the old Chelsea when Mourinho took charge for the first time in 2004. He even survived the Avram Grant regime until going to work with Chelsea legend Gianfranco Zola at West Ham.
A quiet man not given to throwing his charisma around. He always seemed a natural No. 2, the type who puts his arm around a player rather than scaring him into success. West Brom’s structure, where a sporting director does the admin and Clarke can concentrate on the coaching, seems to suit him fine. The Baggies are difficult to beat, have some notable scalps and are as close to a stable club as it is possible to be in the Premier League.
He was given a standing ovation by home fans in recognition of sterling service. Labelling him a Mourinho disciple is disingenuous in light of a long experience in the game, but his team play a pattern similar to that of the first Jose era. The aim is to soak up pressure before midfielders join a lone striker. It almost paid off in spades. If Chelsea fans had wanted anyone to claim a historic scalp, it probably would have been Clarke. Yet he was denied. He deserves their sympathy.