It is one thing to lose a match, and an altogether different matter to surrender without a fight. Last evening, it was indeed the latter. Sunderland humiliated Chelsea 0-3 at their home – at their fortress, at Stamford Bridge. A team that hadn’t conceded a league goal at home this season and had equaled the club record for consecutive clean-sheets, let in three to suffer their worst defeat in eight years.
Chelsea has endured an extremely tough week – both on field and off it too. It started off at Anfield, where a Torres-inspired Liverpool were the deserving winners. Then came the West London derby, and the Blues somehow managed to register a narrow win over local rivals Fulham. Amidst such tough times on the field, the management dropped a bombshell, sacking assistant coach Ray Wilkins. Against Sunderland, the horror-struck fans booed the team and left the Bridge early.
Carlo Ancelotti spoke after the match and was expectedly disappointed; he admitted that this loss was the worst of his Chelsea career thus far.
“We never lost with this result at home. Our performance was poor today, but we have to know that in football it can happen if you don’t use your best mentality. But we are able to come back if we stay focused on our job, and it will be just one day poor. One month ago I said the difficulty would arrive. The difficulty has arrived and now, we have to come back in our training sessions to stay more in focus, play better than today. It is difficult now, we have to look in the next days and have a meeting about this, to look at what happened today. Sometimes we had some players out in the past, some important players, and the team played well. Today was different. We were not able to play our football. It is strong enough. We are top of the table, not happy obviously for today and we have to play with a different mentality.”
He is the manager – there’s only so much he can say publicly. With an endeavor to call a spade a spade, let us begin analyzing what has gone wrong at the Bridge, after a bombastic start to the season.
The curse of injuries
Let’s look at the midfield first, as it is the worst hit area on the pitch. Frank Lampard, who has been known for his endurance abilities over the years, has not played a game for the Blues since August. Each time he approaches a return, he suffers another setback. As it stands, he is still at least three weeks out, after breaking down in training yet again before the Sunderland game. Ancelotti’s utility buy Yossi Benayoun is out for the season. Michael Essien missed the Liverpool game, but returned for the midweek derby only to be sent off for a baffling two-footed tackle. Presently, he is serving his three-match suspension.
With an eye on the balance-sheet, the club had offloaded many midfield veterans hoping that Lampard, Benayoun, Mikel, Essien, Ramires, and Zhirkov would be good enough to marshal the midfield. As it stands, Ancelotti just has Mikel, Ramires and Zhirkov at his disposal to pull the strings.
Coming to the defence, Alex has had his fitness issues. However, it didn’t hurt Chelsea much, as Bosingwa’s return allowed Carlo to use Ivanovic to partner Terry in the heart of the defence. But when Terry pulled out of tonight’s fixture, Ferreira was summoned to replace the captain ; the writing was on the wall from there on. Paulo is a dependable squad player and is a team-man to the core, but that’s when he plays at his preferred position on the pitch, not at centre-back.
Didier Drogba was struck by a bout of malaria and was forced to miss a few games last week. According to the manager, he has recovered now but is not able to train. Still, in the absence of other influential players, Ancelotti has fielded the half-fit Drogba. Understandably, the striker has been a shadow of his former self.
The wrath of the injury-crisis has been so severe, that the manager’s pre-season plans have been thrown out of the window. Carlo Ancelotti may have planned to gradually include Ramires into the thick of things, but due to a plethora of injuries, the manager and the player could not enjoy that luxury. To be fair to the Brazilian, the Premiership is a tough place for a foreigner to get accustomed to, especially if you are a midfielder. Ramires has found it hard to settle down in this tough-tacking no-nonsense league. The manager had plans to promote youth to the first team this season, but having only youngsters to come on from the bench to change the outcome of an evenly fought game was not something that he had hoped for.
Disappointment on the pitch
Chelsea, thus far in the season, has already suffered three losses – away at Manchester City, away at Liverpool and at home to Sunderland. In the first loss at the City of Manchester Stadium, the trio of Mikel-Essien-Ramires was pitted against the most physical midfield in the league in the form of Toure-De Jong-Barry. Toure and De Jong saw the chinks in Chelsea’s armour, and rattled the new signing with a few tough tackles and dispossessed him at will. It was a game that could have gone either way, but a solitary Carlos Tevez goal after Chelsea had lost possession turned the scale in City’s favour.
Then came the much talked about trip to Anfield. Before the match, the talk of the town was Liverpool’s resurgence, as they had won three games in a row after an year, and the Reds did not disappoint. In front of a vociferous support at Anfield, Liverpool out-played Chelsea on the back of a Torres master-class. Such was the beauty of his twin-strikes that even the most critical of Chelsea fans could not point fingers towards the defence. However, fingers could indeed be pointed at the visitors’ feeble midfield combination.
Mikel was partnered by Zhirkov and Ramires in the centre of the pitch. Gerrard, Meireles and Lucas had their numbers all night. In the absence of an outlet to release the ball down the middle, Mikel had just two options – either to find the attackers with a long ball or pass it on to the fullbacks so that they could exploit the flanks. Ergo, Chelsea channelized its attacks through the flanks not out of choice but out of limitation, and failed.
Sunday, however, was an altogether different proposition. The makeshift defence failed miserably to cope with an in-from Sunderland attack-line. The midfield was yet again run over by the opposition, and the strikers didn’t show any intent of getting the team back into the contest. It was a collective failure of a magnitude that has not been witnessed at the Bridge ever since Manchester United defeated Chelsea 0-3 in the 2001-02 season. In a match where the champions had to come from behind and show their mettle, the forwards managed just 3 shots on goal in the entire game. Some fans left the stadium early, and a fraction of those that didn’t decided to boo the team off the pitch; these were some unimaginable scenes at the Bridge. It was saddening to witness such a toothless performance from the home team, but it was unfortunate to witness such behavior from the fans.
If the Earls Court distraction wasn’t enough to rub the fans the wrong way, the club management decided to bring Ray Wilkins’ 37-year association with Chelsea to a sudden and abrupt end. Wilkins, a fan favourite, was appointed to primarily aid Scolari cope with the English media and with the language barrier. Such was his reassuring presence during the turbulent time under Scolari that when Hiddink and then Ancelotti took over the reins at the Bridge, the management decided to persist with the Englishman.
“Ray is a real blue-blood, Chelsea flows in his veins. Without him, we couldn’t have won a thing.” – Carlo Ancelotti
Chelsea Football Club, under Roman Abramovich, has been known for its ruthless decision-making streaks. The club had fired Mourinho, Grant and Scolari in the past when it had to. Now that Ancelotti has settled in the league and has overcome his language barrier, Wilkins may have become surplus to requirements. The kind of financial restraint that has been seen at Chelsea over the years may have resulted in his removal.
However, the manner and timing of the assistant coach’s ouster are befuddling, to say the least. If the media reports are true and Wilkins was indeed fired midway through a reserve-team match, then it is disappointing as Ray certainly deserved a better treatment. This announcement came at a time the team was not doing well on the pitch and Wilkins was known to be close to at least the English bunch. This news would have affected the players, howsoever professional they are. Ancelotti had ensured that this was not the case and that the players are focused. After witnessing the disillusioned display on Sunday, one wouldn’t be too wrong to think otherwise.
However, look at the table – it doesn’t lie
Despite various problems, both on and off the pitch, Chelsea are still at the top of the table. The defending champions still have a two-point lead over their nearest rivals. This team has been known to bounce back in resounding fashion after suffering major set-backs in the past. The manager has a tactical acumen and strong enough character to overcome adversity. The players have it in them to rally behind each other, forget about the off-field issues and concentrate on the field. The fans are strong enough to back their team during these challenging times and support them through thick and thin. All Chelsea needs is one inspirational performance from one of its sons to galvanize its league campaign.
The team may have lost one battle, but a war is still there to be won. The season ends only in May.