There are some things which you can now guarantee will happen in the Premiership season. Ronaldo will get booed wherever he plays, Mourinho will make a fool out of himself in the papers, Liverpool will claim that this is their season, City will only sell out their ground on derby day, and Newcastle will have an injury crisis. Maybe there’s something in the water up in the North East, or maybe they train on a pitch of concrete, but there certainly seems some kind of injury curse. Complaining about injuries, or blaming them, is something which shouldn’t sit right with any fan. It always feels like a bit of a kop out, and even though at times, justified, it should always feel awkward. Newcastle are a team whose fans should be vindicated from this awkwardness though, and there will be various teams over the years who are also exempt.
Chelsea, however, are unlikely to ever be let off the hook. With hundreds of millions spent on players over the past few seasons, there should be no excuse for injuries having a drastic effect on the season. The injuries to Cech and Cudicini aside (however it is important to note Chelsea dropped points in 1/4 of the games Cech did play in) how much is there to the excuses which are coming out of the Bridge?
The absence of John Terry of course would hit any team hard, but if Gallas and Huth had not been sold on, would it have been devastating? Probably not. Anyone with a football brain could see it was senseless to get rid of two covering central defenders, and in their place, bring in a left back, especially considering the one they already had, Bridge, was more than competent. However, this was done, and £9 million was spent on Boulahrouz as cover. Chelsea fans won’t need to be reminded that it was this joke of a defender who acted as the final straw in their disappearing title chase, who got sent off and gave away a penalty in the game against local rivals Arsenal which they needed to win to stay in the race. Unlucky with injuries, or poor managerial decisions in the transfer market?
Chelsea felt the injuries of Joe Cole and Arjen Robben, the latter of the two who was not starting for the club even when fit. Mourinho introduced an, erm, interesting tactic in the 05/06 season in the semi finals of the FA Cup against Liverpool. Instead of playing with any wingers, Jose opted for a 442 formation, with four central midfielders across the middle, with Lampard, Makelele, Essien and Geremi. The result? Chelsea looked poor, and Liverpool bossed the match, until Chelsea introduced width in the form of Cole, Robben and Gudjohnsen. Chelsea were close to pinching a result at the end, but the decision to play without width for much of the game cost them the FA Cup. This surely should have been lesson enough for anyone with a football brain, but alas, it wasn’t. Chelsea sold on Duff and Gudjohnsen, buying no replacement, and relied on the injury prone Robben, the out of favour Shaun Wright-Phillips (who had been chosen to play in the equivalent of just 12 league games that season) and Joe Cole. Instead of investing in width, Chelsea brought in two more central midfielders, Ballack and Mikel (for a hefty £16 million). Ballack couldn’t have appeared to give less of a shit if he tried, and Mikel, who repeatedly showed up late for training and threw tantrums on the field, managed to rack up 8 yellow cards and 2 reds in his first season. Despite having the highest scorer in the league on their team, scored 19 fewer than United, and 8 fewer than in their previous season. Unlucky with injuries, or poor managerial decisions in the transfer market?
As I have already established in previous articles, both Gary Neville and Nemanja Vidic spent longer out injured than John Terry this season, and whilst Chelsea have suffered because of the absence of Joe Cole (who made 13 league appearances) and Robben (who made 21 league appearances), United have also struggled because of the absence of Saha (who made 24 league appearances, last game March 3rd) and injuries to Smith and Solskjaer. Up steps a moment of managerial genius, with the introduction of Henke on loan, who scored goals and had contributed massively to United’s league, FA Cup and Champions league campaign, in his three month loan. Of course Ferguson had the last laugh on this decision after the media had previously scoffed.
Now, during the 05/06 season, United were ravaged by injuries. Roy Keane bowed out to injury before finally leaving the club at a time when the manager had no opportunity to replace him. Scholes played his last match of the season in 2005, before returning for the final game when the title had already been decided. United played games with a back 4 of Bardsley, Rio, O’Shea and Richardson, as we saw all of our defenders face considerable time on the sidelines at one time or another. Giggs spent the season in and out of the injury room, forced to play in the centre of our midfield due to injuries for substantial periods of the season when he was fit. If we had our first XI fit for the whole season, would we have won the league? Would we have at least come closer than finishing 8 points behind? Player for player, was our fully fit first XI better than Chelsea’s? Did beating them 1-0 at Old Trafford, when Fletcher and Smith propped up our midfield, and we had the options of Bardsley, Richardson and Rossi on the bench prove we were a better side?
United lost the title fair and square, and whilst United fans and players would like to hope we would have had a better season without the ridiculous number of injuries, nothing can be proven so there is little need to debate over what could have been. Last season, United had won and lost the title enough times to know how it felt to be on both sides of the fence, and to know how to take victory and defeat. There was no bitterness from the United camp, no claims of being superior, no attempts to belittle the Chelsea achievement. “You won the league Chelsea, but had we not had our injuries, it could/would have been different.” I don’t feel any particular pride as a fan that my team were gracious in defeat, as it should be taken as a given and be expected. I would be ashamed if our players and managers had blamed our injuries.
Now, this success business is new for Chelsea players and fans, and so maybe this is why they have been so poor at being gracious. Maybe this is why they appear so bitter to have conceded the Premiership title. Joe Cole, Frank Lampard, and John Terry were all interviewed after they lost the title, and all of them made reference to their “terrible” injuries. They talked of having their backs up against the wall, of massive problems, and having lots to contend with. None of them were big enough to say hats off to the best team, which United were, regardless of any injuries either team had.
But if you thought the Chelsea camp could leave it there, without losing too much respect, you were wrong. Ferreira is the latest to join the list of the classless, claiming Chelsea are certainly a better team than United. “I insist 100 per cent that United are not a better team than Chelsea,” the Portuguese defender said. “When all our players are fit then we’re still the best in the country. We played United three times this season and they did not win any of those games.”
Conclusive evidence then, right? United drew with Chelsea twice in the league, on one of those occasions fielding a team almost fit to play in the reserves league, and therefore, Chelsea must be the better team. And by that logic, West Ham are a better team than United and Arsenal are better than Chelsea.
Whilst some United fans will be left frustrated by these low rent remarks, it is important to stress that this Chelsea attitude is one which will benefit United. It is clear to anyone with a football brain that United were easily the best team in the country this year, playing the most exciting and entertaining football from a team of Champions since Arsenal in their unbeaten season. Whilst Chelsea are unable to accept this, move on, and develop ways to become better than United, then United are certainly in the more favourable position. If it is the attitude of the players and manager at Chelsea that without their injuries, they would be now the Champions of England, then they are failing to address the real issue here…that Chelsea simply weren’t good enough this season. As a United fan, I keep my fingers crossed Chelsea continue to blame their failure this season on injuries, and continue not accepting their flaws, and I look forward to the new season with greater expectation than I’ve had in years.