Like last Monday, today’s journey into work took an unfamiliar feel. Same bus, same journey, same dreary monotony…save one detail. Normally my morning routine involves catching up with the latest football headlines on Sky Sports News, before casting my eyes over the online news on the bus.
Not today, not last week. Two terrible Chelsea Sunday performances have seen me, ostrich-like, bury my head in the sporting sand.
This time though, I’ll emerge to post my thoughts on the game. First thing’s first: Sunderland were excellent. Many teams have come to Stamford Bridge in recent months, caught Chelsea in something less than top form, and still left with nothing. Steve Bruce’s team certainly caught Chelsea below par, but tore through them relentlessly to record a well deserved victory. As Chelsea fans streamed from the stadium five minutes from time, the away support jeered: ‘easy, easy, easy’. Easy it certainly was: in many ways, 3-0 flattered Chelsea.
Sunderland fans might not agree however, but I think that, if Chelsea had turned in anything resembling a competent performance, the result would have been different. Bewildered Chelsea fans trudging out of the Britannia gate were left to speculate how a team fielding five players bought for more than £15m could have turned in such an average performance.
There are, of course, excuses that fans and Chelsea staff alike might look to. Injuries, of course, being the primary one. Yesterday’s was a team deprived of Alex, Terry, Essien and Lampard: four experienced and probably world class players who would walk into every team in the Premier League. The defence was a pale imitation of what it might have been and conceding was probably inevitable. No-one mentions Benayoun in the list of players missing yesterday (probably because his is such a long-term injury), but my feeling is that the Israeli might have played a key role yesterday, stitching together an otherwise rudderless display.
But whilst Chelsea’s bench might have been vacant of established talent, the first XI still possessed enough quality to deliver a better showing. Zhirkov and Ramires looked nothing like £36m worth of footballer. The Russian actually looked pretty good going forward, single-handedly carving out Chelsea’s best chance in the first half, but is probably too lightweight to play such a pivotal central midfield role when not supplemented by an Essien or a Lampard.
The less said about Ramires the better, at the moment. Clearly not yet ready for the Premier League, a few good tackles yesterday did not distract from a display that saw him continuously get brushed off the ball. Yes, he needs to be given time to get up to speed, but he also needs to find a way to contribute more in the interim. Getting the basics right would be a good start.
The other excuse Chelsea fans might be looking to could be last week’s departure of Ray Wilkins. We will probably never know the full and precise extent of the fallout of his departure, much less why he was got rid of in the first place. There must be more to it but, either way, Wilkins’ departure surely doesn’t constitute enough of an explanation. In any case, in my view yesterday’s showing was merely an extension of previous form for which, presumably, Wilkins was in part responsible for.
Realistically, the game was lost because too many senior players didn’t play to potential. Chelsea haven’t really played well since the first half against Blackpool back in mid September, but have racked up points because our special players have been able to produce something. When the whole team’s form drops off a cliff – with the exception of Cech and Mikel – chances are losses won’t be far away.
This was an insipid, inspiration-less Chelsea, reminiscent of the worst performances under Scolari two years ago. We are nowhere near those darker days, of course, still sitting a relatively healthy two points clear at the top of the Premier League. But worrying signs are there, and Ancelotti has his work cut out to get his side’s form back on track. Inspiration is his job.