It was ‘business as usual’ for Chelsea at the weekend – as Jamie Carragher quipped during Monday Night Football – as the West London side recorded a stroll-in-the-park 3-0 victory over a surprisingly subdued Stoke City outfit.
But tonight will be an entirely different occasion – the Blues entertain Paris St. Germain at Stamford Bridge, looking to overturn a 3-1 deficit from the first leg of the Champions League quarter-final.
Jose Mourinho had few kind words to say about his Chelsea cast following the uninspiring defeat in the French capital. He branded the Parisians’ third goal as ‘ridiculous’, intensifying Gary Cahill’s more clichéd description of ‘sloppy’, before once again turning to his excuse of the season – the Blues’ stumbling strike-force.
In many ways you can’t argue with the Portuguese; all three of PSG’s goals can be traced back to uncharacteristic defensive errors from the Blues, with the guilty parties including such usually-reliable figures as John Terry, Cesar Azpilicueta and Petr Cech. Likewise, whilst Laurent Blanc’s front three have netted 73 times this season, including 16 goals in the Champions League, Samuel Eto’o, Fernando Torres and Demba Ba don a combined total of just 25 in all competitions.
Not only did Chelsea’s biggest weakness become readily exposed last Wednesday night, but their greatest strength also imploded. With that in mind, Jose Mourinho’s scathing critique and the frustrated angst that came with it is certainly understandable.
But the ‘Special One’ made glaring mistakes too that he’s yet to take responsibility for – at least, not in the public eye. Tactical intuition is usually the Portuguese’s forte, yet against PSG Chelsea spent much of the match malfunctioning, with the team’s balance clearly askew. Similarly, neither of Mournho’s substitutions – one of the Chelsea gaffer’s trademark skills – had any positive effect on the match, rather the reverse. And finally, little of what he said in the post match interview will have made the defeat particularly easier for his players. In fact, his treatment of Fernando Torres over the last few weeks verges upon character assassination.
Perhaps feeling the frustrations of his side’s Premier League title hopes taking a serious dent just a matter of days previous, per a surprise 1-0 defeat to Crystal Palace, did the Blues boss lose his cool ahead of the PSG clash?
For all of the West Londoners’ failings in Paris, team selection has to come close to the top of the list. Having lost Samuel Eto’o to injury, Mourinho elected to field Andre Schurrle up front – leaving a consistent European goalscorer in Fenando Torres on the bench, as well as Demba Ba – a tactical misnomer which also failed to have the desired effect earlier in the season against Manchester United.
For periods of the game, the system of having no recognised striker worked; the German international, as expected, protected the midfield tirelessly and his link-up play with Chelsea’s transitional triplet contributed to the Blues’ two best attacking moves of the match – the first resulting in a converted penalty, and the second in Eden Hazard striking the post.
But in terms of attacking potency, the Blues were always lagging behind their opponents. Chelsea finished the match with just seven attempts at goal, compared to PSG’s twelve.
Like him or lump him, Torres has never let his side down on European nights – his continental record stands at 16 goals in 37 appearances for the Blues, including four goals in the CL group stages this season – and in my opinion, excluding him from the starting line-up was an obvious mistake. Mourinho gave the disillusioned striker a run-out in the second half, but clearly void of any confidence, due to the fact his place in the starting line-up was lost to a player who has spent the vast majority of the season on the wing, Torres failed to have any impact on the game.
There’s something paradoxical about blaming the inadequacies of your strike-force when you have no recognised striker on the pitch. Despite Mourinho’s insistences otherwise, Chelsea still have two different forms of silverware to play for this season and the front-men – be they free-scoring or decisively goal-shy – will still have an inevitably significant role to play between now and the end of May.
But what use will Torres and Ba be now to the Chelsea cause, following their manager’s tacit and public condemnations of their services over the last week? Challenging players is one thing, but continually corroding their confidence is another.
Another glaring absentee from the Chelsea starting line-up last Wednesday night was defensive midfielder John Obi Mikel. The Nigeria international’s anchorman services are near purpose-built for Champions League away days, and whereas David Luiz’s performances can range from sublime to absurd, Mikel is the kind of player who rarely throws up surprises either positively or pejoratively.
Furthermore, despite being just 26 years of age, Mikel is by far Chelsea’s most experienced midfielder , with the exclusion of Frank Lampard, having won every club accolade available at Chelsea, including the Champions League title, as well as the African Cup of Nations with the Super Eagles. It’s assumed Luiz took priority for the height he provides, in a bid to contain the aerial threat of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edinson Cavani, but having featured in nearly every crucial match Chelsea have been involved in since joining the Stamford Bridge ranks in 2006, Mikel’s omission was surprising to say the least. Even when the Blues were clearly prepared to settle for a 2-1 scoreline ahead of the second leg, the Stamford Bridge boss elected to bring on Lampard, rather than the sturdy Nigerian, only for the game to finish 3-1.
Similarly, although Jose Mourinho has opted to blame the performances of his players in recent weeks, a disturbingly un-Mourinho pattern has emerged over the last month. Chelsea have lost their last three away fixtures in a row, and claimed a solitary win against Fulham at Craven Cottage in their last six on the road. In the Premier League away table they’re sixth, which to me at least, suggests systematic and philosophical flaws, more than it does any particular string of individual errors.
The Special One has always been a cult of personality in his own right, and part of that parcel includes exonerating his own failings by shifting the blame onto others, be it a referee, ball-boy or one of his players.
But against PSG, and indeed, against Crystal Palace too, Mourinho made uncharacteristic mistakes. Regardless, he’s accused strikers that didn’t start and a defence that’s been by far the best in the Premier League this season. When the likes of John Terry are making basic defensive blunders, you have to wonder what the confidence levels are like around Stamford Bridge right now. You also have to wonder if the Chelsea manager’s claims that his side are out of the domestic title race have done more harm than good to squad morale.
Tonight is an opportunity for redemption for the West Londoners, but most importantly for Mourinho. As much as he alludes to the intrinsic weaknesses of his own squad, there’s no doubt that the public condemnations of his side’s abilities has become a self-fulfilling prophecy throughout the course of the season.
But Chelsea have never failed on the big occasions this term until now, and I believe Mourinho can be held at fault as much as any player. In terms of tactics, confidence and team selection, the Special One got it wrong. If Chelsea are to progress to the Champions League semi-finals this evening, Mourinho will have to make decision perfectly – after the flack they’ve taken over the last week or so, the players certainly deserve their boss to be in impeccable form tonight.