On the face of things, it's difficult to criticise the media for giving Chelsea a hard time over recent weeks. From the outside, losses to Liverpool (twice), Bayer Leverkusen, Arsenal and Queens Park Rangers, combined with being thoroughly outgunned in the Premier League, at risk of crashing out of Europe at the first hurdle and having a new young manager under immense pressure gives you a pretty easy narrative to chase, and what journalist worth their salt wouldn't just give in and milk that story for all it's worth?
The problem for us, of course, is that there was a team in much greater peril of European embarrassment than Chelsea. Leaving Manchester City, who had a legitimately difficult draw, asde, there's absolutely no reason anyone paying close attention wouldn't have reservations over Manchester United's ability to progress against Basel, despite the fact that all last year's runners up only needed to advance was a draw at St. Jakob's Park.
Had United progressed and Chelsea faltered against Valencia, the story would have continued as foretold by legions of pundits throughout the land. Nobody would have batted an eyelid (except anyone near me, because I would have been throwing breakables). Ahead of the midweek fixtures, the public pressure was all on Chelsea, a team which had, to that point, outscored Champions League opposition 7-0 at Stamford Bridge and was only denied victory at the Mestalla thanks to a ludicrous late penalty. There was none on United, who had been unimpressive in the league for months, carrying injuries and were travelling to a team that they squeaked a draw against at Old Trafford.
It's very easy to paint this as media favouritism, and that's exactly what manager Andre Villas-Boas has done. The 33-year-old blasted the press after the Blues cruised to their easy 3-0 home win, taunting them with the ease of victory and mocking the fact that their precious storylines had been shattered (although not nearly so damaged as they would be 24 hours later).
The media responded with grudging praise. Every match report claimed that Chelsea had radically altered their tactics warping them back to pre Villas-Boas times in order to crush Valencia. It was a snide little I-told-you-so from the journalistic ranks, who've been insisting that the manager's tinkering could never work in the face of a poor run. Never mind that scoring in the 3rd minute* against a side that needs goals to stay alive necessitates a greater focus on defence than usual. Never mind that the Spaniards were winning the ball deep in the Chelsea half thanks to some appalling passing on our part, and that the line of necessity defended deeper because they had no opportunity to move up. That was the story, and they were sticking to it.
*Following a spell of heavy pressing at fast tempo.
As the post-mortem continued, Manchester United were being hammered in Switzerland. Sir Alex Ferguson's central midfield, which somehow contrived to feature a teenage centre half and an ancient winger couldn't get the job done, and the Red Devils were knocked out. It's difficult to imagine a reality in which any significant number of people couldn't have seen that coming, but apparently we're living in it, because the reaction to the debacle was one of utter shock.
It looked, for all the world, as though football's journalistic guardians were favouring Sir Alex and United ahead of Villas-Boas over Chelsea in not subjecting his side to the same amount of pre-game scrutiny as the Blues. There was, thankfully, plenty of actual analysis thrown Manchester's way following their 2-1 loss, so it's not like people are incapable of recognising the issue, but regardless, the different ways in which two sides on the verge of being in real trouble were treated in the leadup to their big games was remarkable.
So the manager's outburst (which, incidentally, was to my eyes a calculated gesture, Jose Mourinho style: Us against the world, Villas-Boas seemed to say. It would be entirely possible to take it as the ramblings of a deranged madman cracking under the pressure, if one were so inclined) was understandable. Chelsea were being unfairly persecuted, and he was calling everyone out on it. No longer would obvious bias be tolerated.
Understandable though the rant might have been, it was thoroughly misguided. There's no reason at all to think the media is biased against Chelsea. Instead, there's a much more obvious solution: By and large, football journalists are lazy creatures not much prone to real thinking, habitually shoehorning the facts into a pre-existing narrative. It's much easier to bend the truth into what you want to see than to do any meaningful analysis, and so that's the path taken.
Take Chelsea. Carlo Ancelotti was fired last summer despite winning a Double in the 2009/10 season. Luis Felipe Scolari was dismissed months into his reign. Avram Grant got the club to a Champions League final and still got the sack. Guus Hiddink wasn't fired, but he gets included anyway because we're building a managerial merry-go-round narrative, alright? Chelsea fire managers. It's what they do.
Manchester United do not fire managers. They do not dream of firing managers. They trust in Sir Alex Ferguson and expect everything to go well, and most of the time it does, no matter how dire the situation. For the media, the very idea of United being in crisis is lunacy. Everything might look a mess, but we know exactly where they'll be in May - at the business end of the table and probably with some shiny silverware to boot.
So, Chelsea lose some games - one after two red cards, three in the final ten minutes, and one in a competition that the club was treating as extra training for the reserves - and Andre Villas-Boas's job is under threat. Never mind looking at how they actually played. That stuff's for chumps. Chelsea were in crisis and the manager was getting the sack. It's how the story goes, and buggered if anyone was going to challenge it. United's blip? If Sir Alex can laugh off a home draw to Benfica, so can we!
They're not out to get us, guys. They're just incompetent, clinging to cliffnotes of the last decade like little lifeboats in a sea that they can't quite comprehend. It must be immensely stressful, trying to hold down a job that a voice-to-text application could manage with twice the accuracy and 100 percent less random malice, and when one couples that stress with looming layoffs - a threat that their own inherent worthlessness has precipitated - the rank and file of the media must be under some serious strain. So perhaps we should forgive them when they reduce the entire goddamn world to irrelevant truisms.
PS: There are, of course,
plenty of some brilliant professional football writers. They know who they are, and you know who they are. Clearly I mean the other ones.