An inauspicious start to a much-played fixture takes centre stage in the next chapter of our feature retelling the story of the historic 2004/05 campaign...
‘I don’t take any criticism personally, especially not from someone like our boss. He just wants to make me a better player.’Joe Cole
There was no sign of what was to come; the only murmur of anything remotely resembling acrimony came from the mouth of Chelsea’s manager, but even that was towards one of his own players.
Nobody knew it at the time, but one of the modern game’s fiercest rivalries had been born. A fixture which would be played out more often any other between two English sides over the next five years proved once and for all that familiarity does indeed breed contempt.
The first season of Blues vs Reds with Jose Mourinho and Rafael Benitez at the helms of their respective clubs would feature no fewer than five meetings, spread across three competitions. The fireworks to be set off in the Carling Cup and UEFA Champions League would not be witnessed in the Premier League, however, with two rather sedate meetings hardly setting the tone for what was to follow.
The first of which came at Stamford Bridge on an overcast early-October Sunday afternoon. Chelsea’s long unbeaten home run against Liverpool, dating back to 1989, had come to an end in the previous campaign; likewise, the Blues ended an 11-year winless streak at Anfield. With Arsenal still firing on all cylinders, approaching 50 league games unbeaten and topping the table, a repeat showing would be most unwelcome.
With the action underway, the only major incident of the first half was an injury to Didier Drogba. Trudging off while clutching his stomach, the injury came at the worst possible time for the Ivorian striker, who was just starting to show signs of returning to his Marseille form of the previous campaign which had made him one of world football’s most sought after strikers.
He had proved to be the Blues’ matchwinner a week earlier up at Middlesbrough, when his persistence - having missed several chances and struck the underside of the bar - finally paid off to deliver a crucial three points. A clever free-kick routine saw Frank Lampard deliver the ball low into Drogba’s path, the big man having dropped back to slip his marker. A precise finish left Mark Schwarzer with no chance.
On for Drogba was Joe Cole, who had found his spot in the starting line-up passed over to Damien Duff, the Irish winger having recovered from the injury which kept him out during the early weeks of the campaign.
The Blues No.10 had already made a telling impact in one game of the fledgling season, scoring the late winner against Birmingham City, and he’d repeat the trick again against stronger opposition in west London.
A Lampard set-piece claimed the assist for the sixth time from our last eight goals as Cole delivered a deft finish to beat Chris Kirkland at his near post.
‘I’m taking free-kicks and corners, which I was never entrusted with before,’ revealed the provider.
‘The manager has given me that responsibility. It’s something I’ve added to my game and it makes me believe in myself even more. He is bringing the best out of me.’
The goalscorer, however, was not lauded on this occasion. Despite receiving a bottle of Champagne as Sky Sports’ man of the match, Cole was brought down to earth by the post-match appraisal from his manager. The message was clear - Chelsea Football Club was all about the team and not any one individual.
‘Joe Cole scored a goal which was very important,’ said Mourinho. ‘He played really well in terms of attacking dynamism. When he scored, the game finished for him. After that I needed 11 players for my defensive organisation and I had just 10. Joe can be a regular but he has to improve when the team needs him to be part of a defensive organisation.
‘He has a lot to learn. I think he has two faces - one beautiful and one I don't like. He must keep one and change the other one.’
Despite the tabloids focussing solely on the negative aspect of the comments, the player himself was rather more positive about what he saw as constructive criticism.
‘I think my game is getting better and better playing in one of the best teams in Europe,’ said Cole, who was still a month shy of turning 23. ‘We have got great players here who aren't even on the substitutes bench so I'm learning from them every day and I am learning from the boss as well.
‘I don't take any criticism personally, especially from someone like our boss. He has no axe to grind with me, he just wants to make me a better player. So I'll listen to him and take it on board. It's all about Chelsea really. The boss only wants to make us better players.’
Arsenal may have been setting a sprint pace at the start of this Premier League marathon, racking up 26 goals from their opening eight fixtures to go two points clear at the top of the table, but the Blues were taking a leaf out of the book written by the Gunners side managed by George Graham. ‘One-nil to the Arsenal’ could just as easily be applied to Chelsea, who had now won by that scoreline in 50 per cent of our fixtures in the fledgling 2004/05 top-flight season.
The solitary goal conceded after 720 minutes was the best defensive record to open a Premier League campaign. Not that such a fact would stop the critics circling on the team that had set about breaking up the duopoly which had ruled the Premier League since 1998.
‘It is not fair - I think they should criticise the teams playing against us,’ said Mourinho. ‘Liverpool came here with just [Djibril] Cisse up front and I think they had one shot. But it is fair to say we should score more goals. The midfield is working very well and defensively we are great. So Arsenal are playing beautifully and we are playing not so good and not scoring many goals, and we are just two points behind them. In one weekend it can all change.’
As Chelsea went back to the blue corner at the conclusion of a typically cagey opening round in their epic contest with Liverpool, there was plenty for Mourinho and co to be happy about. They had landed the first blow - but Cole, the man to deliver it, would have to keep his guard up if he was to maintain his place among the big boys at Stamford Bridge.
- By Richard Godden - Chelsea matchday programme editor
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