As the battle at the top of the Premier League intensified in 2004/05, Chelsea headed to Blackburn for what would prove one of the most defining games of one of our most memorable seasons...
‘Blackburn had a game plan right from the whistle – to get stuck in. Well, we matched them and we sent a message out to everyone: don’t mess with us.’John Terry
There was a collective clutching at straws among those at Manchester United and Arsenal as Chelsea’s lead at the top of the Premier League table increased.
Sir Alex Ferguson, along with the unusual assertion that he always thinks ‘the league starts on New Year’s Day’, suggested that the Blues will ‘find it difficult coming north to get points.’ Perhaps they play a different ball game once you get past Watford...
Nonetheless, having already taken three points from Liverpool, there was no doubting Chelsea’s next two trips out of London would be far from straightforward. The Blackburn Rovers side which welcomed us to the North-West was pretty far removed from that which came to Stamford Bridge in October as the Premier League’s bottom side; Everton, meanwhile, were enjoying their best top-flight campaign for quite some time, still holding on to fourth place by the time of our visit. That, however, did not stop Jose Mourinho offering a response to Ferguson.
‘I know that Manchester United will lose points in the south because they already have done: three points at Stamford Bridge, three at Portsmouth and two against Fulham,’ he declared. ‘For sure they have a problem in the south. We will have to wait and see whether we have a problem up north.’
Twenty-four hours on from United’s 4-2 victory over Arsenal which saw Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira clash before the game and was followed by Arsene Wenger writing his side out of the title race, Blackburn boss Mark Hughes was clearly keen to test Ferguson’s theory.
The Rovers crest features the club motto ‘Arte et Labore’, which means ‘by skill and labour.’ Plenty of the latter would be on display at Ewood Park on a freezing early February evening but, sadly for the football purists, not so much of the former.
Petr Cech needed to reach only the four-minute mark to set a new Premier League record for the longest run without conceding a goal, but by the time he had got there the Blues were already fortunate not to have lost John Terry to a serious injury after the skipper was crudely taken out by Paul Dickov.
Unfortunately, the same could not be said for Arjen Robben; having already been the victim of a poor challenge in pre-season which had broken a bone in his foot and delayed his Chelsea debut, the second half of his campaign was to be disrupted by a similar injury, this time inflicted by South African midfielder Aaron Mokoena.
By that time, the Dutchman had already fired Chelsea into an early lead, latching onto an Eidur Gudjohnsen header to beat Lucas Neill and fire a low finish past Brad Friedel. ‘You could see what happened to him after he scored,’ Mourinho mused. ‘He's special, maybe that's why they had to target him.’
The incident clearly unsettled the Blues, as Blackburn came back into the game through a combination of aggressive and direct football. However, they could find no way past Cech, who brilliantly kept out a Dickov penalty and continued to excel despite twice being caught late by the Scot.
‘The Manchester United side I was part of [in 1994] had to cope with the physical challenge in the first 20 minutes of games,’ Hughes had said before the match. ‘With the way games are refereed today, I don’t think that teams can do that anymore, and that makes it easier for the good teams.’
His side had clearly proved otherwise, although referee Uriah Rennie saw fit to book only four players by the time the gruelling encounter came to an end without further addition to the score. The ongoing battle between Terry and Dickov had been the highlight of a second half short on quality.
‘They felt they couldn't beat us playing football so they tried to beat us in a different way – direct football, first ball, second ball, being nasty and hard and trying to intimidate players,’ said Mourinho. ‘Look at the blond boy in midfield, Robbie Savage, who commits 20 fouls during the game and never gets a booking.
‘We came here to play football and it was not a football game, it was a fight; we fought and I think we fought fantastically, with a lot of spirit, with a solid defence, with everyone fighting for the same cause.
‘We have showed that we are not worried about coming to the north and battling. The players’ spirit is magnificent and the fans are fantastic.’
The reward for those who had made the long trip to Ewood Park for a midweek game came amidst the raucous celebrations of the Blues players. Mourinho indicated for them to remove their shirts and the black and silver jerseys were dispatched into the crowd, offering a priceless souvenir for a lucky few.
After a 0-0 draw with Manchester City – the second time the Citizens had shut us out in the Premier League that season – it was off to Goodison Park for another fight, as forecast by the manager in his pre-match musings.
Little did he know quite how quickly his prediction would come true. Just eight minutes had elapsed when James Beattie pursued William Gallas by the touchline, with the ball clearly out of his reach. Inexplicably, the England international headbutted the Frenchman from behind – and then looked incredulous when referee Mike Riley produced a red card!
‘I was a centre half and I would have been ashamed if I'd gone down like that,’ was Toffees boss Moyes’ reaction to the incident. ‘I've never heard of anyone headbutting someone from behind. It's just not possible. Never in a million years would John Terry have gone down like that.’
Upon viewing the incident again, the Scot changed his mind and issued a fine to his centre-forward, who apologised for the incident. In more recent times, Beattie revealed his mindset before a game, which perhaps gives us the best explanation for his actions.
‘I would stand in the tunnel before a game and stare at players,’ he said. ‘I'd think to myself: 'I'm going to destroy you. You have absolutely nothing for me.' A sports psychologist I once worked with laughed at how visual I was in my thinking. He was in hysterics that I admitted I've imagined being a rhino before I went on to the pitch so I could just plough through everyone.’
Nobody was laughing when he put that into practice – least of all Gallas, who was mercilessly booed for the remainder of the game.
With the pitch coated with sand and lumpy throughout, and the home side more than happy to sit back and defend with 10 men, Chelsea struggled to find a breakthrough until Gudjohnsen turned the ball home from inside the six-yard box after Gallas’ header came back off the crossbar.
It was enough to move us 12 points clear at the top and push Cech’s run of clean sheets to within 40 minutes of 1000.
‘I am sure many people sitting at home were wishing us to drop points, but we bounced back from last Sunday,’ insisted Gudjohnsen. ‘We concentrate on our own results to begin with and then that puts the pressure back on Manchester United and Arsenal.’
- By Richard Godden - Chelsea matchday programme editor
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