17 December 2013

Chelsea, a cornered beast or simply dead in the water?

So Chelsea crashed out of the League Cup against Sunderland, going 120 minutes while scoring just one goal and watching helplessly as Ki Sung-Yueng netted at 118' to see Sunderland through to the next round. Of course, caveats and asterisks abound as Cech, terry, Ramires, Oscar, and Mata rested. Of Chelsea's XI, we might see Lampard, Cole, Cahill, and Luiz, each of whom played the full 120'. Given the ages of Lampard (35) and Cole (32), not to mention the latter's reliance on pace, they're likely to be rested. Then again, Essien's yellow-card, his fifth on the season, means he'll sit out and perhaps force a weary Lampard into action.

However, before we go too far into the specifics of the match, let's take a broader view. Chelsea, to put it politely, have been mediocre despite managing to scrabble their way to enough points to sit third in the Prem. Since November, a stretch of eleven matches including the Champions League, they've managed to win six while drawing once and losing four times. Of those six wins, perhaps only their 3-0 win over Schalke in the Champions League stands out for its quality. Along the way, Chelsea have found a way to draw at home to West Brom, lose at FC Basel, win at Sunderland thanks to a late own-goal, lose at Stoke, eke out home-wins over Steaua and Crystal Palace, and lose at home to Sunderland. Yes, three points matter regardless of their manner, and champions find ways to win when quality alone doesn't carry the day, but it's been somewhat shocking to see how poor Chelsea have been—not just on Tuesday at Sunderland, but all season. Each potential signature victory comes with some kind of an asterisk. Defeated Man City? Yeah, but that was at Stamford Bridge. Defeated Arsenal? But Arsenal rotated heavily for the League Cup. In fact, it's remarkable to see how few definitive wins Chelsea can claim and how many shocking defeats they've suffered. Each one, however, reduces the shock-value.

This latest, one that some may defend by saying that Chelsea had rotated heavily, still stands out. Much is made of Chelsea's depth, with the idea that their bench is better than most clubs' starting XI. Well, we saw much the opposite on Tuesday, with Chelsea's XI, which included regulars such as Cole, Luiz, Cahill, Azpilicueta, Lampard, and Mikel, fail to defeat the Prem's most abject squad, one that has managed only two wins in the Prem from 16 fixtures and that fired its manager six matches into the season. I mean, good God. Were it not for a Cattermole own-goal, Sunderland might have kept a clean-sheet.

None of this is to say that Monday's fixture will be a cake-walk, not by any means. However, so much has been made of the fact that Ars√®neh has never defeated Mourinho across nine matches that I felt like it would be worth addressing. Look. Historic comparisons don't matter all that much. We can perhaps look a season or two into the past for some context, but squad change so often, and players evolve so much, that there's little to be gleaned from them. More instructive, perhaps, would be each club's recent form. At the risk of coming across as overly optimistic, we've salvaged a tricky draw against Everton, backed our way into the next round of the Champions League despite losing away to Napoli, and very nearly equaled Man City at the Etihad. By contrast, Chelsea eked out a 1-0 win over Steaua and a 2-1 win over Crystal Palace, both at home, and lost 1-2 away to Sunderland. On the surface, both Arsenal and Chelsea have staggered.

There are still six days before we'll clash, but Tuesday's result suggests that Chelsea is the club on the ropes, not Arsenal. How delicious would it be to deliver a knock-out on Monday, not just to Chelsea's aspirations, but to Mourinho's tenure?