It would have been Sheffield United away today for Chelsea were it not for the lockdown. To keep us ticking over, we recall a win against the Yorkshiremen on their own turf when some big name midfielders, including the current boss, were at the fore…
Ahead of a lunchtime kick-off in South Yorkshire on 28 October 2006, Sheffield United coach Neil Warnock was warming to the pre-match conference topic of his opposite number: Chelsea’s Jose Mourinho.
‘I have never spoken to him,’ said Warnock, ‘but he wrote to me in the summer congratulating me on the promotion – a very nice letter. I thought that was a nice touch. It would be nice to pick his brains. I’d like to talk to him. He is a very shrewd tactician.’
Warnock admitted his wife Sharon had perhaps been looking forward to the visit of the back-to-back champions even more than him. ‘It is not as bad now, since he had his hair cut,’ he said. ‘But before, she did make the comment that he was a good-looking fella. I couldn’t deny that. But I don’t see him as serious competition.’
Warnock may have fancied his team’s chances on the field more than usual, though. The Londoners rested Ashley Cole ahead of a Messi mission in midweek at Barcelona, and Andriy Shevchenko had a muscle injury.
The situation in goal was still concerning, too. This was the fourth match since Petr Cech and Carlo Cudicini had both been injured at Reading (Cech’s a very serious fractured skull) and Henrique Hilario was on glove duty.
The third-choice goalie was deliberately put under pressure by Sheffield United’s approach, but acquitted himself well when it came to the crunch a quarter of an hour into the game. Didier Drogba, who had earlier performed a brilliant last-ditch tackle, was judged to have fouled Claude Davis.
The hosts had missed twice previously from the spot that season, and the Chelsea ’keeper again denied Danny Webber’s poor effort. ‘A three-point save,’ was how Mourinho described it afterwards. ‘If Hilario doesn’t save it, maybe we are in trouble.’
The let-off galvanised the visitors. Frank Lampard and Michael Ballack dominated midfield together, dovetailing, creating and scoring one apiece in a devastating seven-minute spell either side of the break.
The first was a long-range Lampard direct free-kick (pictured top) that moved deceptively enough to elude the body of Blades sticksman Paddy Kenny. Then early in the second half the England midfielder, who had been fouled before that opener, was found on the overlap by Arjen Robben after a neat lay-off by substitute Salomon Kalou. Without delay he teed up Ballack for the second in the 2-0 win, an unstoppable, unchallenged header.
While most observers admired the German’s subtle effectiveness on and off the ball, Warnock found something to fume about: ‘He must have committed a dozen fouls, but never got a yellow card because he’s Ballack.’
With the game seemingly won, thoughts turned back to the non-emergence of Drogba for the second half three days ahead of a trip to Camp Nou. Fellow centre-forward Shevchenko was also struggling as the Blues, who had defeated the Catalans 1-0 at the Bridge, completed the second instalment of a Champions League group stage head-to-head.
‘We played last time against Barcelona without two ’keepers; maybe on Tuesday we play without any strikers, so I take “the bus” there,’ joked Mourinho.
‘They’re not the champions for nothing,’ Warnock noted of the departing visitors. ‘They’re the champions because they adapt to whoever they’re playing against. Whether it’s Bury in the cup or Barcelona in the Champions League, I think Chelsea would give the same amount.’ Tuesday’s match in Spain would finish in a 2-2 draw.
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