James Lawton: Hazard ball boy incident reveals dark mood currently gripping Chelsea
For Swansea a stunning triumph, the reward for brilliant commitment to some of football’s best values.
For Chelsea almost comic ignominy, not only banishment from the road to Wembley but the deathless charge of roughing up a ballboy as a grim expression of what happens when a hugely expensive team runs out of not only inspiration but the most basic ideas.
Swansea were approaching serenity even before Chelsea’s Eden Hazard was sent off after appearing to kick the boy who lay on the ball, perhaps in a passion of partisanship. Swansea were only briefly diverted from their glory but what it said about the mood of Chelsea, the sense that they have become prone not just to error but unbroken public-relations disaster was utterly desperate.
Maybe Swansea’s Michel Laudrup looked so relaxed on the touchline in the early going because of the enlightening effects of one of several pre-game sermons by Chelsea’s interim manager Rafa Benitez. This was the one according to the gospel of the big-time manager.
It explained that it is only he who knows the real pressure, the kind that comes when you are in charge of the recent champions of Europe who are now competing for a trophy that will have to be disputed with the vaunted giant-killers of League Two Bradford City.
Benitez had explained that if you are a Laudrup, making pretty football and some good results in the middle ground of the game, not quite so much is expected of you. You do not have at your disposal the kind of midfield that Chelsea put out – you do not have all the confections of Mata, Oscar and Hazard, the nous of a time-expired Lampard and the increasingly destructive Ramires. You do not have to juggle with Demba Ba and Fernando Torres.
It is also possible that Laudrup was re-assured by the evidence that whatever the degree of his pressure, real or imagined, he was doing something right.
That might have been quite dramatically underlined when Wayne Routledge sent away Michu in one of those trademarked break-outs which are now guaranteed to spread terror in more or less any rank of the game. Michu, he of the killer eye, normally hones in on the near post but on this occasion he attempted to shoot across Petr Cech. The big man spread himself into a fine save and Chelsea were able to return to the anvil of their trials without the impact of immediate disaster.
Though Ba and Ramires were lucky to escape yellow cards, for respectively a calculated dive and a punishing foul on Swansea’s Ki Sung-yueng, they went about it as menacingly as you would expect a team of their resources. Swansea’s counter-attacking faded into something much less measured and quickly enough Laudrup had some pressing reasons to dispute Benitez’s theory about his relatively easy-going professional life.
The most acute of these was Juan Mata. The Spaniard was as he has been so often in the recent affairs of Chelsea, which is to say biting and coherent and by far the greatest threat to Swansea’s hopes of an historic breakthrough in a Wembley final. Indeed, at the approach of half-time Laudrup was showing his first signs of serious concern. His gratitude to the weight of defensive work generated by Ashley Williams and superbly supported by such as Angel Rangel and young Ben Davies was surely as profound as it has been in a season had brought so close a quite extraordinary achievement.
Laudrup certainly did not mull over his problems at half-time. He gave his team not so much a strategic review as a major call to arms. The response was extremely impressive in that it subdued for half an hour almost all of Chelsea but for the prime threat of the relentless Mata.
For Swansea he remained by the greatest peril of the night which became so bizarrely distorted by the frustration of his team-mate Hazard. When the Belgian virtuoso roughly attempted to separate a dilatory ball boy and the ball referee Chris Foy eventually administered a red card, according to Law 12 which is quite firm about excessive force applied to players, officials and spectators.
Benitez, who has reason to believe that he has become the ultimate arbiter of all football pressure, naturally made an expression of disbelief and disgust.
There were many ways Chelsea might have disappeared down their latest blind ally but maltreating a ballboy, as opposed to, say a manager, seemed pretty low on the list of possibilities.
But of course this was Chelsea, the club who can turn the highest triumph into not just low but extremely dark comedy. Benitez had also said that his owner Roman Abramovich was pleased with the progress of his team. When Hazard trailed off the field, it was hard to calculate precisely the level of poignancy in such optimism.
Chelsea, once again, were a team who could only be grateful to escape into the night.