Say goodbye to 'boring' Chelsea
I believe it was Benjamin Franklin who coined the maxim "In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." Having not lived through the Premier League era, Ben can be forgiven for not knowing life's other constant: "Chelsea matches are always boring."
But after Saturday, I can't even bank on that old chestnut anymore. If English soccer continues to be this wild and unpredictable, who knows? Someday Arsenal might even acquire a reliable striker who isn't a Man United cast-off.
For years, as Jose Mourinho's Blues were on a trophy binge, I consoled myself knowing their supremacy was rooted in a stolidly defensive, risk-averse philosophy that put a premium on winning, even though it meant sucking all the joy and entertainment out of the game. Let's face it: "Chelsea In Nine-Goal Thriller" is about as likely a headline as "Man City Owner Claims Wages Are Too High."
The one time it happened before, Mourinho sprinted away from the scoreline like Justin Bieber in a car chase with Keyshawn Johnson.
After Chelsea beat Spurs 5-4 in 2004, the Special One said, "To get a result like today in an 11 vs. 11 game is disgraceful." Yet at least one somewhat important member of the Chelsea family begged to differ and has been waiting impatiently for just that kind of goal-fest.
Blues owner Roman Abramovich wasn't at Goodison Park on Saturday to watch Chelsea out-field goal Everton 6-3 in a game that had pulses racing and hearts stopping for 90 exhilarating minutes. This was the sort of relentless attacking juggernaut the Russian oligarch insisted upon the first time he booted Jose out the Stamford Bridge door, before remembering that the largest ego in Portuguese history had made an annoying habit of filling the silverware cabinet and deciding to bring him back. And even if it is sandpaper to his defensive soul, Mourinho may finally have given Abramovich his heart's desire in his second tour of duty as Chelsea manager.
Of course, it's only three games in, but already certain patterns are emerging that point to this being yet another crazy, topsy-turvy season. Manchester United have splashed out about a quarter of a billion dollars and are lapping up Monaco's leavings (Falcao!) in a desperate attempt to stave off relegation. Man City have spent a mere pittance to bolster their title-winning squad that couldn't even beat Stoke over the weekend. Liverpool have put Luis Suarez in the rearview mirror and have Mario Balotelli on the dashboard, while Arsenal have decided the answer to their striking problems is acquiring an England international who has scored twice for his club since January. Swansea and Aston Villa are undefeated. Oh, and Spurs have thudded back to reality after discovering they can't play QPR and West Ham every week.
But no squad has gone through a more fundamental transformation than Chelsea. In fact, on Saturday, if it hadn't been for his disheveled countenance and constant hectoring of the fourth official on the touchline, you might not have even realized that Mourinho was still the manager.
I mean, these Blues are the very antithesis of his orthodoxy, a team that dazzles in attack and looks vulnerable in the back. They don't park the bus; they take it for a wild joyride all over the field. And to think that they played this open, freewheeling game in a place where Chelsea has lost on four of its past five visits?
I blame Stoke. Had Mark Hughes' men not pulled off a seismic upset of Manchester City at their home fortress, I doubt Chelsea would have been in such a rush to deliver a message. As it is, they waited all of 35 seconds to let City know that the Londoners were all-in and that the defending champions could immediately start minding the gap at the top.
There was a swagger to the Blues, one that was markedly absent during the Returning One's tenure last season, when the once and future Prem kings stumbled against the league's also-rans, finishing below the top two for the first time in Mourinho's England career.
To his credit, the Portuguese knew where the holes existed and filled them with his kind of players -- both abundantly talented and hardworking. Unimpressed by the 15 league goals that Everton loanee Romelu Lukaku banged in last season, Mourinho sold him off and brought in Diego Costa and the ageless heart of his earlier champions, Didier Drogba. Decisive and opinionated, the Chelsea boss appears to have fixed his team. At least Arsene Wenger has the opinionated bit down pat.
The he's-so-done-we're-giving-him-away exit of Fernando Torres to AC Milan meant that none of last season's trio of Larry, Curly and Moe (Samuel Eto'o, Demba Ba and Torres) remain on Chelsea's bench. Then, the weekend's bargain (well, $13 million) addition of mercurial Frenchman Loic Remy, who failed a physical at Liverpool and fluttered his eyelashes at Wenger all summer, completes the Mourinho makeover.
The key piece -- former Atletico Madrid striker Diego Costa, who terrorized La Liga to the tune of 27 goals last season -- may have had a forgettable World Cup, but he's still a nasty piece of work (as Everton's Seamus Coleman was to discover) and has a preternatural habit of always turning up in a position to billow the back of the net.
In essence, Mourinho traded in one Spanish international for another with one minor yet chilling difference. It took Torres 39 games to score his fourth Chelsea goal. Costa's done it in three matches.
But to be fair to Nando -- something I've never been -- he didn't have a player with Cesc Fabregas' sublime skills to serve him the ball on a tapas platter. The way the former Arsenal player (my bitter-o-meter is considerably lower with Cesc than it was for Samir Nasri and Van Persie, but if this continues, I'll rally) bisected the Everton defense in the first minute with a ball that all but begged Costa to slot it home was further proof that Fabregas must have a scale at home on which he weighs his passes.
While the Spanish Connection has a lot to do with transforming Chelsea into a team looking to blitz an opponent right from the start rather than to sit back and wait to hit them on the break, Fabregas and Costa are not alone in their confidence. The Brazilian Ramires, the Belgian Eden Hazard and the Serbian Branislav Ivanovic attacked Everton with the kind of carefree abandon that Mourinho has suppressed all these years, but when Ivanovic finished off the move for Chelsea's second goal in three minutes, even the Dour One betrayed a hint of a smile.
At New York's Football Factory, where I watched the game surrounded by couple of hundred giddy Blues, I heard a chant that had previously been the sole purview of Manchester United: "Chelsea, Chelsea, we score when we want, we score when we want."
Oh how the singing Blues were feeling their Guinness. I resigned myself to 87 more insufferable minutes of a Chelsea onslaught followed by the hilarious banter that is the hallmark of their supporters. ("Lukak-who?" shouted Alex, a tall, boisterous fellow in a retro jersey.)
But when 15 minutes flew by without another goal and the loudly mocked Belgian striker soared over John Terry to thump a header against the crossbar, the first of the "Wake up, Chelsea" cries reverberated through the room. And when the deserved Toffees opener came right before halftime courtesy of a gorgeous Kevin Mirallas header, the pub became strangely -- and gloriously -- silent. If anything, it got even quieter when the home side ratcheted up the intensity after halftime, enjoying 73 percent possession in the first 20 minutes as they chased the tying goal.
And then the madness hit. First, very much against the run of play, Hazard knocked a billiards shot off Coleman and past Tim Howard to restore Chelsea's two-goal lead. Then Costa, who had earlier picked up a yellow card for manhandling the Irish defender, showed his Chelsea level of class by taunting Coleman about his own goal, causing Howard to go all Thierry Henry on the Spaniard.
Whether the incident sparked the surreal outburst of four more goals over the next eight minutes is anyone's guess, but after the old Blues warhorse Eto'o came off the Everton bench to draw the home side to within 4-3 in the 76th minute, I noticed that my Chelsea friend Alex had switched from beer to Jameson straight up.
What a spectacle this was to behold! It was hard to keep up, what with the goals flowing faster than the alcohol. Naturally, within a minute Ramires had made it 5-3, and the release of tension -- not to mention a wasted beer that soaked the back of my neck -- was palpable.
There was still time for one last moment of comical defending. Everton's highly touted 21-year-old debutant, Muhamed Besic, came on in the 90th minute, and with his first Premier League touch tried an oh-so-clever blind back-heel that John Obi Mikel intercepted and showed the Bosnian how it's done by back-heeling the ball to Costa for goal No. 6.
The Chelsea fans were in full cry again, but Alex was too spent to celebrate.
"Give me back my good old boring Chelsea," he said. "They were a lot easier on the nerves." And also, it should be noted, much kinder to his liver.
David Hirshey is an ESPN FC columnist. He has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and written about it for The New York Times and Deadspin.