Another fevered night at the Bridge. They came to bury England’s Champions League hopes. Their faces contorted as they snarled behind a line of impassive luminous jacketed stewards, the bearpit of Naples exported to Millionaire’s Row. This was to be the night the flame was extinguished. The owner, obscured on our TV screens behind the toughened glass of the hospitality box, once more with that slightly bemused expression, silent, shielded from reality. Out in the arena below, his gladiators looking to roll back the years, to grasp at the prize perhaps one final time. The fans, they would make it happen. With a wall of noise and sheer force of will they would haul their heroes across the line. Still dreaming. Fingers crossed.
At first it appeared a forlorn hope. Their opponents, bright and eager, painting shapes and attacking swiftly, had remembered their lines. The Blues were distracted, their minds elsewhere. But then they stirred. A cross conjured up from the left and there was the old warhorse Drogba, the Lion of Africa, the first from his continent to one hundred Premiership goals, to finish as he had done so many times before. It was on again. Belief surged. Then, from a set piece, a trademark intervention from the man they revere most. His name adorns so many of the shirts and the banners, his image emblematic of an era. He is the antidote to the Russian millions, the soothing balm of the traditional which gives substance to a project so steeped in vanity and vulgarity that many of us wonder if we want this to happen at all. Captain, leader, legend. I could add less flattering epithets but surely that would be mean-spirited, on tonight of all nights. John Terry, craggy faced and bleeding passion, his thoughts somewhere on a sodden Moscow night, glimpses redemption. It is compelling but somehow empty.
The visitors hit back. The anxiety returns. If only Frank, midfield dynamo, could oblige and the Holy Trinity would be united once more. It was in the script tonight. And why not a penalty? So many of the others had been. Lampard smashed it home. Where was Villas-Boas? Was he watching? What was he feeling? Why couldn’t they, wouldn’t they, do this for him? What values define this team? What will we look back and reflect upon? Extra time was a formality. The challenge had wilted; the threat had been faced down. Terry, now removed from the fray, barked orders from the touchline. We raised an eyebrow. There was still time to bring more of the essence of a very typical evening. Drogba threw himself to the ground clutching his face. He knew and we knew but we stopped thinking long ago, numbed by ubiquity to the outrage we once felt. The final whistle, the joy unconfined. They had pulled it off. Even that pathetic, lost figure of Torres broke into a smile. Mourinho would have been proud. As they embraced, we knew the hopes of England were still alive. My England, I think.
The light may be dying but the rage is stronger. The principals are not yet ready to leave the stage. They have unfinished business. It drives them on but we already know the ending. It won’t be like this. They reach out still towards an imagined destiny but it is paradise forever delayed. Often in football, as in life, that’s just the way it is sometimes.