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Michael Conniff

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Con Games: Chelsea FC's Beautifully Ugly EPL Game

Posted: 10/27/11 11:25 AM ET

CON GAMES -- The Culture Editor of the New York Times, who deigns on bad days to write about sports, says: "Sports are absurd." (This in Sunday's New York Times Magazine.) But if you're a true sports fan, then you know Culture Editor is in way over his head -- a man down in the brain with a dugout phone that doesn't work and a red card in his wallet that he never leaves home without.

You want absurd? I'll give you absurd. What better word or way for a scribe to describe the second half of Chelsea FC's war over the weekend against Queens Park Rangers (QPR), promoted to the Premier League this season after 15 years in the dustbin of relegation. QPR played Chelsea at home at Loftus Road before over 18,000 -- their largest crowd of the season in a high-school bandbox.

There was no hint that this match was to become a game for the ages -- until Didier Drogba perpetrated a two-footed tackle that earned a red card from referee Chris Foy, the second such ticket he had issued against Chelsea that day. With Drogba and Jose Bosingwa gone for the day, Foy's decisions meant Chelsea would now play the vast majority of the second stanza 11 against 9 -- an all but hopeless situation.

Instead, Chelsea's second half against QPR microwaved into a classic.

Absurd, right? Down 1-0 on the road and two men down, Chelsea should have given up. After the weekend's 6-1 pasting by Manchester City, Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson -- he's a knight, for Chrissakes -- said he should have pulled the lads back and conceded a man-down loss to their in-town derby rival.

But first-year Chelsea manager Andre Villas-Boas (AVB), thirty-something, would have none of it, amigo. The Chelsea nine were not only spectacular as individuals but unforgettable as a group, and I give the manager credit. Tactically, the second half was a masterpiece, as if AVB had said to his nonet: "We are going to win and here's how. No one has a position any more. Now we play football like we are nine-headed monster. When one of you moves, everyone moves. That way we win."

Think of it this way: by the end of the match, every Chelsea player on the pitch had a yellow card to go with the two reds -- literally everyone except Petr Cech, the keeper with the padded head. For Cech that meant he was constantly propelled beyond the 18-yard box and into the field in the role of sweeper performed without flaw. Goalies don't often get a chance to show they are consummate field players, but Cech pulled it off without a blip at Loftus Road.

Chelsea, you see, was supremely pissed at Foy, at QPR, at QPR's loathsome bandy-legged fans, at the injustice of their situation. Absurdist as it may seem, angry players playing with an edge generally play their best. Attacking midfielder Frank Lampard, left for dead a month ago, was transcendent, racing about the pitch and throwing his body about with no regard for tomorrow. Captain John Terry, the central defender who just opened his own snake shop, played like he had responsibility for the entire pitch, at one point provoking a brouhaha when he charged into the QPR goalie. (A central defender charging a keeper!) The Brazilian David Luis, responsible for the foul that gave up a penalty kick and the only goal, was as ubiquitous as Terry, with particular malice in the box waiting for corner kicks. Left back Ashley Cole became a left wing and an instant danger man.

The list is long and could be longer (Meireles, Ivanovic, Anelka) -- but the point is that nine men railed together against the Fates. They lost but it was defeat replete with glory that can only bode well for whatever follows.

Watching sports is its own reward. You slog and blog through game after game in sport after sport -- and then something happens, and you instantly understand why you have invested all that time and why the ultimate payoff is worth it.

So, yes, I guess you could say sports is absurd. That's exactly what I love about it. All hail Chelsea FC.

 

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