Huddersfield Town stank the place out at Stamford Bridge last night. And we loved it.
Having smothered the state sponsored and petrodollar fuelled City on Sunday, it was a trip to the capital to engage with the oligarch.
Southampton’s win against Swansea, which sealed their survival barring an outrageous turnaround of goal difference by the Welsh club, who could have been playing until the weekend without scoring, meant that Town were faced with the considerable task of securing a point against either Chelsea or Arsenal.
The mitigating factors bestowed upon the Premier League Champions by the fawning media – Souness was a particular delight – largely suggesting that, somehow, their joyous mood and celebrations played in to Town’s hands along with the hot weather which strangely only impacted on the home side, where completely absent at the Bridge.
Chelsea had to win to cling on to their faint hopes of a top four finish and it was being played at night without that pesky sunshine.
Conté’s decision to rest Hazard and Giroud was retrospectively wheeled out in the Pensioners’ defence, and with their squad being thin in quality and without much depth, the criticism was obviously very well made.
For Wagner, the heroics at the Etihad meant juggling with a recovering (and genuinely thin) squad and three changes were made; Van La Parra, Depoitre and Billing were thrown in to the mix.
An evening of almost unbearable attrition followed. The defensive block was not so much deep as positively subterranean. In a first half where the visitors barely ventured out of their own half, they nevertheless managed to largely contain Chelsea’s rather laboured possession but they were grateful that Rüdiger snatched at a back post chance, blazing over the bar, and Morata took a touch too many when freed in the area allowing Lössl to smother.
For all their quality, penetration largely eluded Chelsea and the sea of red shirts weren’t for parting. The waves of attacks were relentless though – Van La Parra struggled to retain possession or carry the ball away from danger and became something of a liability. Depoitre battled manfully but in predictable isolation as the back nine plugged away to deny the hosts space and time whenever they tried to breach the final third.
The home fans’ annoyance with Town’s increasingly leisurely approach to taking dead balls, throw ins and free kicks must have been music to Wagner’s ears. A frustrated, impatient opposition plays in to his hands, just as City had 3 days earlier. Their vexation came to a crescendo at the end of the half. With seconds remaining, Chelsea were awarded a corner and Willian wandered over to take it – he took so long, that time ran out. With typical entitlement, the men in blue surrounded the meticulously timekeeping referee and Town were 45 minutes plus away from survival.
Within 5 minutes, Town’s cause was hugely boosted when Mooy took advantage of a loose ball following a crunching, fair challenge on Willian and played the ball over Rüdiger for Depoitre to charge on to. Caballero rushed out to try to intercept but, instead, met 200 pounds of Belgian muscle and came out distinctly second best and prone on the floor. Shrugging off the keeper’s challenge as if he’d been tackled by Dave Cowling, Depoitre lifted the ball in to the net before whirling away to celebrate with the incredulous visiting support.
The lifeline was huge but short lived. Chelsea resumed their onslaught, by now with Hazard and Giroud on the pitch, and equalised with a hugely fortuitous goal which cannoned off Alonso’s face from a Zanka clearance. The luck wasn’t misplaced – when you attack for virtually the whole game, chances are that you will get a break, but it was a bad time to concede when the Terriers had had little opportunity to increase the pressure and frustration on their hosts with the lead.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the game descended in to chaos for the last half hour. Ominously, Chelsea were finding too much space down their right and Hazard was on the ball far too frequently for comfort.
Despite mainly relieving pressure with hoicks up the field to no-one, Town had one or two opportunities to break and if Billing had been able to get the ball past Kanté, Pritchard would have been clear and likely to score.
The vast majority of the game was in Town’s half, however, and tackles, blocks and determined organisation was holding out the increasingly desperate Chelsea attacks. The pivotal moment arrived with just 7 minutes left. A corner caused mayhem in the box with at least two Chelsea players swiping at the ball before it looped up in the air for Christensen to head powerfully goalwards. His compatriot in the Town goal clawed the ball on to the post with a remarkable, defining save before a combination of Depoitre and Mooy finally cleared.
It wasn’t the last pinball moment in Town’s box, but it was the last with any real danger. Lössl made a routine save from Morata and Giroud looked momentarily threatening before scuffing a shot wide, but Town held firm with relative comfort.
To the indignant howls of the home fans, Town ate up time with injuries, long walk substitutions (Smith and Willian scuffling as the former ambled off) and painfully slow dead ball kicking by the eventually booked Lössl.
It was ugly and undignified but we hadn’t come for artistic merit points, rather an actual and hugely valuable one.
The last act of a tumultuous, historic and immensely brave evening was the sight of Malone’s unusual gait running at a Chelsea defender, then in to him and earning a free kick which Mooy floated in to the corner with the last kick.
With survival guaranteed, Town players rushed towards their 12th man – the magnificent support which has never waned through all the inevitable difficulties of hauling a fundamentally Championship squad over the line with one game to spare and with points at the homes of both the champions and the previous champions.
4 days of monumental effort and togetherness has brought huge reward – the finances are astounding for a club which, not that long ago, was simply existing to survive in the second tier. But the money wasn’t the story last night; the belligerent, down right ugly at times, battling spirit was.
Survival puts Town at another level. Much needed strengthening, particularly in wide areas to increase our often feeble threat, will surely come and it is to be hoped that Wagner can resist the lure of other clubs and lead us towards a future not wholly dedicated to scrapping for our lives, as exhilarating as that has been.
A massive celebration on Sunday will be just reward for everyone involved at Huddersfield Town and the vibrant, loud and inventive supporters.