Let's start at the end. Chelsea have six points from two games and currently lead the Premier League for the first time since November 2010. That's a long time -- it's been 64 league games since we occupied the top spot outright, far too many for a club that would like to think they're still a regular title contender. And now we're back. It's not something to take seriously, of course, but it's still pretty nice.
It took a very odd game to get us to our current lofty position, however. Chelsea beat newly-promoted Reading 4-2 at Stamford Bridge in a match that superficially resembled the Manchester City vs. Southampton barnburner. That one saw City win 3-2 after taking the lead and then going behind to excellent goals from Rickie Lambert and Steven Davis before Edin Dzeko and Samir Nasri saved the day. It was an advert for the Premier League, an exciting game that also featured top-quality football.
This match wasn't. Of the goals scored, one was world class, one was off penalty, two were the result of catastrophic goalkeeping errors, one came from a catastrophic officiating error, and the last one occurred when the goalkeeper literally ran away. So... yeah. Odd.
Much like in the opener against Wigan Athletic, Chelsea started extremely brightly. With Ramires starting on the right flank after getting over last weekend's bout of illness, the whole front four looked incredibly fluid to begin the game, and it very nearly paid off immediately. A flick released an onrushing Ramires, who burst through the Reading defence with ease. Fernando Torres was in attendance, so the Brazilian cut back... and then didn't pass to him.
Instead, Ramires shot, a slow curler towards the far post, and although Adam Federici spilled it, Torres was unable to tap home the rebound. Instead, the striker was too busy berating his teammate for taking a difficult shot rather than setting him up for an easy goal, which was pretty reasonable considering that Ramires had just demonstrated the decision-making ability of a heavily concussed goldfish. Still, if he'd followed that in, it'd have been 1-0 Chelsea.
Torres attempted to right the wrong done unto him by Ramires by beating the whole Reading team by himself and very nearly pulled it off in a Lionel Messi-like run which evaded at least four yellow shirts before being curtailed by a miscued shot just in front of goal. It was an impressive moment from the centre forward, reminding us all just what he's capable of if he's in the right mood. Unfortunately, it didn't result in a goal, because that would have been one of our best ever.
But the Blues would score soon enough, mostly thanks to a low-profile signing out of Lille. Yep, that's right, Eden Hazard was at it again. One stat that was widely floated around when he signed was that he was the most-fouled player in Ligue 1, and he's certainly lived up to that so far this season, winning another penalty after Chris Gunter attempted a slide tackle that missed the ball by at least two feet and ended up catching the 21-year-old's plant leg.
Frank Lampard took it, as Frank Lampard does. Federici dived to his right, but the goalkeeper couldn't keep out the vicious hit, and the Blues took a thoroughly deserved lead. Through the first twenty minutes, Reading had approximately none of the ball, and although there were a couple of false starts from the Chelsea attack it looked for all the world as though the team would be capable of a rout.
Reading's first goal was so magnificent that I had trouble getting too worked up about it. Ashley Cole got caught out of position and the Royals were able to spring a rapid attack down our left flank. John Terry was drawn out into the hole, which left Gary Cahill isolated against Pavel Pogrebnyak, who, for all his flaws, is very dangerous in the air.
The that aerial threat is, I suspect, the reason that Cahill started over David Luiz, who picked up a mysterious injury directly before the game that has magically cleared up now that it's over. Cahill's main advantage over the Brazilian is that he's a monster in the air, perfectly suited to match up against the likes of Pogrebnyak and help on set pieces at both ends of the pitch.
It didn't work out that way here. Garath McCleary swung in a cross, and Pogrebnyak completely evaded the Chelsea centre back, then flick a header past Petr Cech and in for the equaliser. That's not doing it justice. Here is another attempt: From a cross coming right at him at speed, Pavel Pogrebnyak scored with a header on which Cech had no chance from fourteen yards away while being marked by Chelsea's aerial specialist. That was some goal.
Like I said, I was so impressed by the strike I couldn't bring myself to get angry about it. The anger ended up coming shortly thereafter, though. Jobi McAnuff, operating on the Reading left, tore down the flank, evading weak attempts at tackles from Branislav Ivanovic, Ramires and John Obi Mikel before Terry intervened and brought the visiting captain down, mysteriously avoiding a booking for the foul.
It was a dangerous free kick, but nothing Chelsea should have been too worried by. Indeed, Danny Guthrie rather wasted it, sending a low drive straight at Cech that was hit too hard for any of his teammates to get on the end of. Ninety percent of the time, you'd expect the goalkeeper to catch that shot cleanly. Ten percent of the time, you might expect a mistake and a rebound. Zero percent of the time, Cech kicks it into his own goal attempting to make a save.
Remember how I said the game was odd?
At 2-1 down, Chelsea looked shellshocked, as well they should. The Blues had been completely dominant and were losing anyway. At this point, tempers were frayed and the visitors were allowed to boss the game. It took some immensely sloppy play from Chelsea to manage it, but Reading were clearly the better side for the rest of the half, and nearly scored again when they managed to completely miss the presence of Alex Pearce on a free kick. Thankfully, he missed too, leaving the set piece to bounce harmlessly wide.
There were chances for Chelsea, of course, but they were the sort of chances that never seemed like they'd find the net. Mikel sent in a great cross for Eden Hazard that the Belgian failed to convert. Terry was too early to jump on a corner. Torres headed well wide when he might have done better. It all felt as though we were trying to force things and failing. Badly.
That's what happened after the break too. Mercifully, Chelsea had the better of the possession and weren't simply allowing Reading to waltz through midfield anymore, but up front things still looked very laboured. I don't really feel like describing all the chances that nearly were but weren't, so I'll skip on ahead to Roberto di Matteo's response: He pulled Ramires and John Obi Mikel, introducing first Oscar then Daniel Sturridge to the match.
The equaliser came within a minute of Sturridge's introduction, but it had nothing whatsoever to do with the young striker. It was mostly to do with Federici being a bit rubbish, but we'll give Cahill some credit too -- he replied to a simple pass from Hazard with a driving shot that the Reading goalkeeper could only palm into his own net. Chelsea had been down for a full half hour, and one suspects that if they'd waited much longer they could have easily ended up losing the game.
Instead, they pressed and probed for a winner. Eventually it arrived in rather contentious circumstances. A beautiful series of passes culminated with Juan Mata finding Ashley Cole completely unmarked on the left side of the visitors' penalty area and bearing down on goal. Everyone was expecting him to shoot. He didn't opting to set up Torres for a tap-in. The problem? Torres started a yard offside.
For some reason, the goal stood anyway, a decision which rightly infuriated pretty much everyone but those directly affiliated with Chelsea. It was obviously offside live, and the replays only made it more clear: Fernando Torres' winner should not have counted, and the lack of a flag from Andy Halliday was an error as stupendous as Cech's on the Guthrie goal. And no, I'm not about to turn free gifts like that down. Neither were Chelsea.
With Torres' goal coming in the 81st minute, Reading didn't have much time to mount a response. They tried to, of course, and with a one goal lead, an error-prone defence and five minutes of injury time, the home fans had plenty of reason to be nervous, but it was Chelsea who ended up getting the game's final goal.
The hapless Federici came up for a last minute corner, which, thanks to some great work by Torres, ended up being sprayed out to Hazard. Then followed the rarest of football sights, the five-on-one counterattack with an open goal. Eventually, Hazard opted to square to the onrushing Ivanovic, who slotted home to make it 4-2 and securing Chelsea's second win of the young season.
Was it a deserved win? I'd say so -- for my money the Blues were the superior side and based on that performance Reading lose much more often than not. But with the blown offside call on the winner, Royals fans have every right to feel very hard done by. Chelsea fans will, by and large, not give it much thought. Why would we? Top of the league!
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