The point Brighton made by holding Chelsea should not be lost on the grasping plotters behind the despised European Super League. This was confirmation that football does not belong to the petty, small-minded men looking to change the face of the sport for the benefit of their own bank balances. The game is about competition, risk and drama. It is about underdogs going toe-to-toe with a club owned by a Russian oligarch, who has belatedly seen sense and decided to pull Chelsea away from the absurd closed shop for joyless suits.
Brighton were excellent, pricking the pomposity of the Premier League’s big six with a display full of craft and intelligence. Graham Potter’s smart side were well worth a point, easily frustrating Chelsea, who are now fourth, only above West Ham on goal difference. David Moyes’s team are one of the unfancied clubs looking to nab a Champions League spot off them.
Being generous, perhaps the backlash affected Thomas Tuchel’s side. After a year of silence, the air turned blue outside Stamford Bridge before the game. The crowd of football lovers who gathered on Fulham Road to voice their opposition to the despised European Super League did not hold back. There were expletive-laden chants about Florentino Pérez, Real Madrid’s chairman, and cries for Roman Abramovich not to have Chelsea play a part in football’s destruction.
Two hours before kick-off a protestor summed up the mood by draping a banner reading “Fans Before Fortune” over the front of The Butcher’s Hook, the pub where Chelsea were formed in 1905. Instead of dissipating, the anger was growing. There was an energy to the chants, a depth of feeling that the conniving elitists had clearly underestimated, and nothing summed up a surreal moment in time better than a visibly shocked Petr Cech, Chelsea’s technical and performance adviser, pleading with supporters to make way for the bus carrying the home team into the ground.
“Let me sort this out,” Cech said. “Give people time.” It was a bizarre scene: one of Chelsea’s greatest players at odds with supporters who worshipped him when he performed those heroics against Bayern Munich in the 2012 Champions League final.
The issue is that history was under threat. An entire community was under attack and it was hard to feel uplifted when the first cracks in this rotten project started to appear before the game. The sense of betrayal lingered even when it emerged that Chelsea and Manchester City were preparing to walk away from a train that was never going to depart without them.
The suspicion remains that terrible PR had provoked a belated show of morality. Either way the game, delayed by 15 minutes because of the chaos on the streets, suddenly took on fresh meaning as Chelsea, whose participation in next season’s Champions League remains in doubt because of their league position, reacquainted themselves with quaint concepts such as jeopardy, sporting integrity and genuinely competitive football.
No doubt the wretched few driving this rotten project were aghast at the thought of Chelsea actually having to work to win a game of football. They must have been appalled when Brighton refused to roll over during the first half.
Brighton, one of the clubs who would have been blown away by the proposal, were fired by indignation. The mood on the pitch was spiky from the moment their players emerged wearing T-shirts reading “Earn It”, just as Leeds had against Liverpool on Monday. “If you mistake a football supporter for a consumer, then you’re in real trouble,” said the Brighton manager, Graham Potter, speaking up for the little man.
Brighton were up for it, rattling Chelsea and defending well. Yves Bissouma dominated midfield and Danny Welbeck was a pesky irritant up front. Kurt Zouma was booked for a clumsy foul after being turned by Welbeck and Chelsea found it hard to build any flow in attack. They looked distracted by all the noise. “I do not feel I should pretend that everything’s normal,” Tuchel said.
Tuchel was in an awkward position because of his board’s behaviour. Chelsea should have been on a high after reaching the FA Cup final at City’s expense. Instead they were hesitant in possession and short of ideas in attack, where Kai Havertz, Christian Pulisic and Hakim Ziyech all struggled to find a way past Brighton’s stubborn defence.
Brighton were defiant and almost snatched victory late on, Bissouma hitting the bar and Welbeck testing Kepa Arrizabalaga. Chelsea turned to the stars on their bench, introducing Timo Werner, Olivier Giroud and Callum Hudson-Odoi as they chased a winner. Yet Tuchel’s side remained uninspired. They go to West Ham on Saturday evening. It should be a proper game. Imagine that.