Too early, That was my immediate thought. While the rest of the world walked its dog, did its shopping or went to gymnastics or karate lessons we were stood at Portslade Station waiting for a train to the Amex with tens of other Brighton fans. The journey over was memorable only for a frankly incoherent half-and-half scarf seller outside Falmer station, The Boy nearly forgetting his change from his programme and an all out Gully attack outside the club shop. Once upstairs in the concourse pints were purchased for me and Steve’s friend who was shaking off a post-party hangover, and a Bovril for Steve who is absolutely smashing Dry January, the poor sod. Five minutes later we were collectively spluttering in to them. FIVE at the back? No Knockaert AT ALL? Wow.
At one level it made sense. We’ve been struggling on set pieces and an extra head there would be useful. Schelotto is a born wing-back and it would suit Suttner too. What we couldn’t work out was what the rest of the formation would look like. It turned out to be a sort of 5-3-2 with Gross back in midfield and March up with Hemed. At least I think so. That might have been what we moved to, since it only took Chelsea three minutes to disrupt it.
We’d barely kicked off. Chelsea were in full voice though the Albion faithful seemed to be fast asleep, the North Stand strangely muted as if many of its inhabitants don’t see that time of day often (clue lads, it’s normally about when you stagger off the train for your away day). Certain other parts of the ground were either too busy creaming themselves over Chelsea or just being please to be there, of which more later, Anyway, before we’d mustered song for whatever reason, Chelsea put together a nice attack down the right, Hazard and Willian playing the roles of conductor and Moses providing the width. A low cross and Stephens, who found himself playing fourth centre back, overstretched, flicking out a boot and sending the ball straight to Hazard who buried it. Celebrations for Chelsea. A belated “Albioooon” from us.
What we really needed to do at this point was get back among them and equalise quickly. Instead, three minutes later we were two down. I’ve seen the goal again and, grudgingly it is indeed a thing of beauty, the sort of goal that if we’d scored we’d add instantly to the pre-match highlights reel. Yes Dunk and Propper gave it away, the former under-hitting a pass and the latter reacting too slowly, but after that it’s all one touch and backheels, Willian starting and finishing the move that inevitably involved Hazard. Even the finish was perfect. Nothing we could do about that, five at the back or not. Unfortunately this left our tactical plans in ruins, a bit like that bit in Pirates of the Caribbean where Captain Sparrow ends up marooned with the boat disappearing in to the distance. Or something. “We’ll get done five or six here” I said to my companions.
To our credit we didn’t. We went back at them with renewed vigour. Enter the game’s villain, referee Jon Moss. A great diagonal ball looked for Gross in the box and out came Caballero to punch, but only as far as the marauding Schelotto who won the loose ball, took it past the keeper and was clearly brought down – clearly that is if you could see it which fatty Moss, in totally the wrong position, couldn’t. We still wasted an open goal anyway, Gross crossing over Hemed’s head in the confusion.
Then just as good a chance, Gross crossing after a cross field ball for March and Hemed’s free header inexplicably saved by Caballero’s feet as he went the wrong way. Then a second penalty shout, Schelotto again winning a loose ball and catching Chelsea on the wrong side, going down under a challenge from Bakayoko that was, while minimal, nevertheless present and from behind. The enraged Schelotto almost walked off the pitch and was lucky to still be on the pitch for his reaction. Half time and referee Moss left the arena to a justified chorus of boos.
Still we tried to claw it back, Schelotto again causing no end of problems for Chelsea down the right before Propper headed a cross agonisingly on the post.
Chelsea were next to hit the post with a brilliant Wilian free kick producing an even better save from Ryan, who was excellent all game, pushing it on to the woodwork. Gaps started to appear as we chased the game and inevitably we went three down on the break. Again we gave the ball away sloppily but after that it was all about Hazard who sent the whole of the Amex the wrong way with his finish.
Then a great long ball over the top and Moses found himself ahead of the tiring Suttner to slot in the fourth. And that was that. A slow start, some Hazard brilliance, two awful referring decisions and some more Hazard brilliance deciding the game. That’s what you seem to get at this level, World Class players who punish you and pub league referees, in love with the big six, who punish you some more.
And we seem to be in love with the big six too. I usually sign off with a cheery story of beery banter and delayed trains but not today. We need to decide if we want to stay in this league. If we do we need to stop all this fawning, forget shirt swapping and selfie sticks, play our own game and back the team from the start. Too many yesterday seemed just pleased to be there watching Hazard work his magic. Unless we develop a bit of nastiness that’s only going to last one season. You wouldn’t catch Burnley at Turf Moor being so nice.