Mind the gap.
Ladies and gentlemen, in Wednesday night's main event...
Fighting out of the blue corner, hailing from fair Dronfield, standing at six feet two inches and weighing 160 pounds, the Bull of Bolton, the Derbyshire Destroyer, the Heir to JT's Crown...Gary "The Quiet Man" Cahill!
Fighting out of the...other...blue corner - make that yellow corner - straight from the salt mines of Siberia*, standing at six feet two inches and weighing an even 200 pounds, Andrei Arshavin's bodyguard, the Beast from the East, Pavel "I must break you" Pogrebnyak!
For the thousands in attendance and the millions around the world, from WAGNH Towers...llllllllllllet's get ready to rumble!
* Fulham FC, actually
We all knew how Reading were hoping to attack Chelsea: speed on the wings; big man in the middle. We all knew how Chelsea were going to combat this: Gary Cahill and the aerial advantage he provides over David Luiz. It should, however, be noted at some point that Branislav Ivanovic was the one marking the big Russian on set pieces instead of Cahill (or Terry).
In open play, Pogrebnyak floated from side-to-side, picking his battles. It was always going to be a frustrating assignment for the Reading man and Chelsea, as a team, did a very good job of denying him the ball in dangerous areas. A virtual passenger in the second half (just a handful of touches, half of which were fouls, eventually resulting in a yellow card), McDermott took mercy on his center forward, withdrawing him from the contest on 77 minutes.
Yet see those four triangles in the Chelsea penalty box? Those four times that Pogrebnyak was allowed even a sniff at a flighted ball, alarm bells were ringing around Stamford Bridge. The last of the four, closest to the goal and the only one in the second half, came on the back end of a somewhat busted play. Petr Cech claimed/punched well.
The other three involved Cahill directly, which made sense since he was in there specifically for that purpose. Let's see how he did (or did the title spoil it already?).
INCIDENT #1: 17th minute (0-0); TERRY clearance
The play starts from a Ramires turnover. Despite being faster than Pogrebnyak, Cahill consistently plays a couple yards off of him. Gary is also very slow to react and this will prove costly later.
To be fair, Cahill is at a disadvantage as Pogrebnyak is already cutting toward the goal at speed (turnovers are bad, kids!). Fortunately the defense is compact and the chipped ball is slightly underhit, which allows Terry to drop into a high-low double team with Cahill and clear the ball with an acrobatic header.
INCIDENT #2: 23rd minute (1-0); GOAL
The move starts with a throw-in on the far side. Pogrebnyak drops deep to receive the throw and passes backwards. As Reading switch the play to the near side, the center forward jogs back towards the middle. Cahill is keeping an eye on him, yet doesn't get very close.
Keeping that extra yard of cushion is helpful when facing faster and more agile attackers (allowing for a step or two to react to the attacker)...yet Pogrebnyak is none of those. The situation turns even more criminal when despite the cushion, Pogrebnyak jukes Cahill, leaving the Chelsea defender hopelessly stranded on his heels (check out his body shape in #3). The forward fakes a run towards the back post, then with a nice cut, accelerates diagonally across the penalty box. Throughout it all, Cahill is at least two steps behind, unable to catch up, and entirely defeating the purpose of playing off of his man.
As Garath McCleary delivers a cross with perfect pace and Pogrebnyak powers it into the back of the net with a free header (and what a sweet header that was!), Gary Cahill is seen flailing in the distance. He is awarded zero points for the task of actually marking the Russian. May we have mercy on his soul.
INCIDENT #3: 41st minute (1-2); CAHILL clearance
Almost a carbon copy of the second incident, crucially different in its outcome. Once again it's McCleary swinging in the cross and once again Cahill is playing off his man. This time, however, Cahill reacts faster, while Pogrebnyak's run is sloppier and the cross is a bit deeper. The ball is cleared for a corner.
On first viewing, I was very happy with this clearance, assuming that Cahill learned from the previous incident and changed up his strategy to get closer to the threat. Yet on the replay, it's painfully clear that the strategy was exactly the same. Cahill did react noticably faster to Pogrebnyak's movement, which in the final balance made all the difference.
FINAL RATING: 5.0
While the community at large rated Cahill a rather generous 6.6, Graham's rating of 5.0 is much-much closer to the truth. Cahill's primary job was to use his aerial prowess to combat (and defeat!) Pogrebnyak in the air. He was not very successful at it.
Gary himself admitted as much in his post-match interview, so I have confidence that he will learn from this experience. Despite our initial reservations about the 7 Million Dollar Man, Cahill has been a solid option at the back (even chipping in with a few timely goals) and I'm sure he will only get better.