Each week on Football FanCast we will be celebrating that special breed who lit up the Premier League with their unique brand of utter genius. This time out we pay homage to an exceptional exponent of modern centre-backing.
We had seen the like of Ricardo Carvalho before. The classy, composed ball-playing centre-half was not a foreigner to our shores. The player was. His type wasn’t. What was new though – or at least new to those young enough to not recall Bobby Moore – was the consistency of his craft.
Prior to his arrival for £19m in 2004 – as the seventh and final summer signing of the recently appointed Jose Mourinho – we Brits had always viewed skilful defenders with an unhealthy degree of suspicion. They were a luxury at best, a liability at worst. Rio Ferdinand was a Premier League winner with Manchester United but still could be ‘got at’ according to yer da. A loud irritable groan would accompany any centre-back who dared to dilly-dally in possession for longer than deemed necessary.
Then along came Carvalho and who changed our perceptions; educated us you might say. Supplanted alongside John Terry – the very embodiment of tough-teaked English stewardship – the Portuguese star swiftly established a partnership that broke all Premier League records with the perfectly balanced duo conceding only 15 goals in their inaugural campaign. It’s a figure that still astounds, equating to a breach every 228 minutes.
Much of this was achieved due to the aforementioned manner one complimented the other but let’s move past that and concentrate on the player himself because here was a defender blessed with an exquisite reading of danger and the pace to atone on the rare occasions misjudgements took place.
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Carvalho was also a highly proficient man-marker, a pre-requisite for any trusted Mourinho lieutenant and he was certainly that with the then-Special One bringing the then-26-year-old over from Porto after the pair surprisingly won the Champions League together.
Chelsea needed to beat off a coterie of European giants for his signature with Real Madrid particularly keen and that’s entirely unsurprising after the Amarante-born stopper had been so influential in Portugal reaching that summer’s Euro final.
A Champions League and Primeira Liga double; a Euro final that earned him a place in UEFA’s Team of the Tournament; then an immaculate introduction to English football that helped the Blues utterly dominate one and all. We’re talking here about an extremely impressive career – but unquestionably this was his peak.
And what stays in the memory from that time is the style in which it was accomplished. Carvalho had an easy swagger that seduced. He came out with the ball and opened things up, doing so with an imperial insouciance. He opted for the more difficult passing lanes because he had the eye to see them and the technical ability to pull them off.
Most crucially of all, he demonstrated time and again a thoroughly modern fashion of defending at such a high calibre that even the old-school dads at Stamford Bridge rested easy. In 135 appearances it can be conservatively guessed that he put in only a handful of games that merited less than a 7/10.
It is April 7th 2007 and Chelsea are challenging for a historic quadruple that includes a third consecutive league title. Ultimately they will settle for two domestic cups but nobody knows this at the time; at the time the unimaginable is imaginable, only a problem has arisen because Tottenham are proving to be an extremely tough nut to crack at the Bridge. Indeed, Martin Jol’s side are carving out the better chances and the Chelsea faithful are getting fretful.
In the 52nd minute Michael Essien lays a simple ball off to his team-mate deep in Spurs territory, who has a quarter acre to run into. Carvalho scampers forward, taking a touch that positions him slightly wide of the penalty area and 35 yards from goal. A cross is inevitable but should he seek support instead, Paulo Ferreira is on his way.
Neither of these options are chosen. Instead, posture set in a heartbeat, a shot fizzes low and hard. It flies past two clumps of players who watch it, transfixed. Paul Robinson in nets sees it the whole time, from the licking of the stamp to the shove through the letterbox. For a millisecond he is spellbound then the Tottenham keeper contorts to his right. It’s too late though. That millisecond is costly.
“What a magnificent strike by Carvalho,” the commentator shrieks. “It’s taken a defender to show how it’s done”. In the mid-2000s, as we changed who we were and how we viewed things, it took a Portuguese colossus to show us how defending was done too.