Let's get a few things out of the way right now: This was a meaningless game, and Chelsea were denied a couple of times by frankly bizarre officiating. This loss does not in any way affect our position as Group F leaders, Marseille's position as runners up, or really anything that matters at all. It was a dead rubber and promised approximately as much excitement as a six hour lecture on the growth patterns of lichen. I'm not angry in the slightest that we lost - and I didn't expect to be angry at the performance, either.
But I am. How can you make a meaningless game matter? In this case, it's pretty simple: Do your utmost to make it a 'statement' game. Of the major players in the Chelsea season, only Ashley Cole, Nicolas Anelka, and John Obi Mikel were rested, meaning that the lineup was completely disproportionate to the importance of the actual match. The message was clear. This is where the slump stops. This is where Chelsea come back to life.
Well that turned out well.
Nobody would have batted an eyelid if Carlo Ancelotti had deployed the kids for a taste of European football in a hostile atmosphere. While Josh McEachran started, and all three of Jeffrey Bruma, Patrick van Aanholt and Daniel Sturridge made appearances at the end of the match, youth was evidently not on Ancelotti's mind. Where was Gael Kakuta? Where was Ross Turnbull? Why did we play Didier Drogba for 60 minutes when he's still suffering from the effects of malaria? I have no idea where Jacob Mellis or Jacopo Sala might have fit in, but there'd have been no complaints if they'd found their way into the starting XI. Would we have been beaten by playing a youth team? Maybe. Probably. Would we have been embarrassed? No.
Instead, Carlo went with the senior players. This had a few consequences that were apparent from the beginning:
- Inability to rest. Didier Drogba is still ill, despite most of the English media assuming that after malaria you just get out of bed one day and feel fine. John Terry's had a major nerve problem. Michael Essien's toe's been bothering him. Jose Bosingwa is only a few games back from a major knee injury. The squad is not fully fit, and each and every player could do with some time off. Only three got any rest.
- Possibilities for injury. In the Carling Cup match against Newcastle, Chelsea deployed their reserve side in what amounted to a meaningless game. Ultimately, they lost 4-3, but far more significant were the injuries to Salomon Kalou, Gael Kakuta, and Yossi Benayoun. It's much harder to get hurt when you're not playing. This one would come up to bite us.
- Confidence destroyer. The team, as selected, meant that Chelsea were taking Marseille seriously and wanted to put down a marker. Which is great if they can get back on their feet, but if the team struggles it makes the whole situation worse. If you believe confidence is important, it doesn't make sense to risk it even further against a Champions League calibre team on the road.
Anyway, the game was a bit of a wreck. Marseille looked lively early on, generating a host of chances and hitting the crossbar with a nasty long-range drive. Chelsea looked skittish - for some reason Josh McEachran was deployed alongside Ramires as a holding midfielder and it became clear that he wasn't up to the task of marking Mathieu Valbuena. Paulo Ferreira on the left wasn't getting forward, leaving the front three without much left-sided support, and Drogba was seemingly more interested in doing tricks in front of his old home crowd than actually doing anything useful.
Chelsea had a couple of penalty appeals but they were both turned down ... well, turned down isn't exactly correct - one was given and then immediately retracted in the most ludicrous corner award you're ever likely to see. Florent Malouda was put in on goal via a chipped pass from Ramires (this was the only good thing he did all game. I counted), but Souleymane Diawara intervened, bulldozing through the striker before getting the slightest of touches on the ball. The referee blew his whistle and pointed to the spot, only for some discussion with the lineman to result in a Chelsea corner and serious consternation on the part of John Terry.
Anyway, the Blues looked decent for a spell after that, with some neat passes into and around the box, but goalkeeper Steve Mandanda was never seriously troubled. It was Marseille, however, who got the ball in the back of the net. John Terry conceded a free kick about thirty yards out on the left, and Benoit Cheyrou whipped in a delivery for Gabriel Heinze to power past Petr Cech. His celebrations were quickly tempered, however, by the linesman's flag, which went up despite the right back being in absolutely no way offside. Marseille were reassured that bizarre officiating decisions were the result of incompetence rather than bias, though, when Diarra (again) hacked down Salomon Kalou in a good position, resulting in not a penalty but a goal kick. Ah well.
The second half was direness epitomised, the only events of note being Marseille's goal and the loss of Jose Bosingwa to what looked to be a hamstring problem. Bosingwa picked up the injury when he stretched for the ball while winning a corner, and he clearly felt something wrong, gesturing immediately to the Chelsea bench to be substituted. Patrick van Aanholt came in, with Ferreira switching to the left, and it was a mistake by van Aanholt on virtually his first touch which led to the goal. The young left back ran into trouble in the Marseille half, and after a minute of home pressure a deflected shot fell into the path of Brazilian Brandao, who had an easy time slotting past Petr Cech.
Chelsea didn't respond. Not many cared.
Now, I don't usually do this, but I'm going to have a go at Ancelotti over the team selection. Bosingwa's injury is on him. The fact that we ended up wearing out the first team ahead of a critical trip to White Hart Lane is on him. The fact that we suffered a demoralising loss when it was absolutely clear that we wanted a win is on him. I'm glad that McEachran, Bruma, Sturridge, and van Aanholt saw time, but they absolutely should have been starting from the beginning.
It's just not acceptable to turn an irrelevant match into yet another Chelsea underperformance. I get the rationale for using the game as getting over a bad moment, but with all of our struggles against decent teams regularly, was an away Champions League match really the best time to make a point?
Marseille answered the question for us - and pretty effectively, I'd say.
I'm a forgiving guy when it comes to management, and Chelsea have plenty of excuses lined up in their defence. But the team selection today is a major blight on Ancelotti's record. What a mess.