Monday, December 09, 2013

'Twas the nightmare before Christmas

A couple of Sundays ago I was at Stamford Bridge for Chelsea's first game of December thought to myself, "thank God November's over". 

Apart from the fact that the Blues beat Southampton 3-1 (but not without going behind within the first 13 seconds), I realized - by the number of people suddenly noticing their faces exposed to the raw elements - that we had reached the end of that now slightly stupid charade (albeit for an utterly worthy cause) in which people grow moustaches for 'Movember'.

As the son of a prostate cancer sufferer, and therefore at high risk from the disease myself, I can't question the motive behind the campaign. But seeing people young enough to know better looking like pale imitations of either Frank Zappa or Dad's Army's Private Walker (a difference largely dependent on upper lip fertility) has meant November has become a little tiresome. 

Like The Office's David Brent getting childishly over-excited when Children In Need night comes around with its annual opportunity to sit in a bathtub of baked beans, the novelty of seeing men, once a year, growing a 'tache for just a single month, has not so much worn off as fallen off and is now all over the floor requiring a broom.

My view: if you're going to grow a moustache, grow one and keep it. Commit yourself to facial hursuitness. Make it your signature, like Freddie Mercury, Tom Selleck or Sir Trevor McDonald. If it's gong to end up looking like a Christmas cracker plastic novelty, don't bother.

Now, where was I. Oh yes, Chelsea and November. As WWDBD? has previously noted, the Blues have traditionally come out of Halloween in the midst of a terrifying hoodoo that has seen them through to their next managerial sacking, usually around February.

This year, however, the club hung on, recording so-so results but at least remaining unbeaten. And then the home tie, on December 2, with the lively Southampton, justifiably sitting in fifth on the morning they met Chelsea. Scoring even as the Southampton staff were getting seated in the away benches, you couldn't help feeling that November had merely been dozing and that the Autumn abomination was about to catch up.

That Chelsea won 3-1 in the end was pleasantly reassuring. That they managed to do the same two days later against Sunderland, albeit in a "seven-goal thriller" (apparently the only way newspapers can describe such results), appeared to suggest that the traditional post-Halloween hex being kept at bay by some spell or other concocted by José Mourinho.

And then, on Saturday, the third in Chelsea's trio of 'S' fixtures, a horror against Stoke City, in which former Chelsea striker and boyhood fan Mark Hughes pulled off the somewhat unlikely upset by beating the Blues 3-2

It couldn't have been lost on Sparky that the direct descendent of his role at Chelsea is a choice of whippet-like attacking midfielders - Oscar, Hazard, Mata and William. This is like an RAF Tornado squadron being decommissioned and later reprised as a motorcycle despatch unit. Which is probably what is happening at the moment in the Royal Air Force.

This hasn't been completely lost on Mourinho, either. Having set out this season with customary braggadocio applied to denying that he needed any new strikers, before adding Samuel Eto'o out of nowhere. All this has masked the fact that for all his creditable huff and puff Fernando Torres is still struggling with the old cow's backside/banjo conundrum, and Demba Ba is struggling with recognising opportunities to impress.

With Eto'o now out injured, and Torres only just coming back from injury, Chelsea's lack of striking options is becoming dramatically evident. Look back over the last few games and you see the prevalence of midfielders on the scoresheet. Even central defenders John Terry and Gary Cahill added their names to the tally against Southampton.

I was always brought up to believe that strikers scored the goals and everyone else just played their part. Perhaps that's a little naive, but if that's the case, exactly what are Torres and Ba being paid to do? Stand around watching Oscar, Hazard and Lampard do their job for them?

At least one Chelsea striker is proving productive: Romalu Lukaku. He may have stank the place out whenever he's worn a Chelsea shirt, but the minute he's sent out on loan again, he's popping them in for fun. This could be a new tactic we haven't encountered before: buy a player and have him play for everyone except yourself, while you put in a series of mediocre performances with everyone - and In include the reserve goalkeeper, the matchday stewards, pre-match mascots and the lady working on the tea kiosk - getting a taste of scoring goals.

‘I’m happy that [Lukaku]'s scoring goals against our direct rivals," said Mourniho recently, "and he doesn’t score against us because he can’t play. It’s phenomenal that you have a player that, even not playing for you, is scoring goals against your opponents."

This was, it must be said, mentioned by Mourninho in the midst of a somewhat Fergusonesque comment about Lukaku being a bit of a cheeky lad for suggesting that he'll be in charge of deciding where to play next season.

Chelsea do, however, have an almighty headache ahead of them when it comes to Lukaku. Unconvincing when he plays for Chelsea, mostly prolific when he plays for Everton and previously West Brom. Indeed the most telling fact is that Lukaku has, this season, scored more goals than Chelsea's remaining recognised strikers between them.

Lukaku's case can't prevent one from thinking that Chelsea's acquisition strategy is indeed about denying other clubs access to top talent. How many much-admired players have they bought and then immediately farmed out? Admittedly, Petr Čech's form is inevitably keeping Thibaut Courtois at Athlético Madrid longer than may have been invisaged when Chelsea signed the keeper, but looking around Europe there are Chelsea loanees dotted about like KGB sleeper agents.

To go back to Chelsea's traditional Halloween nightmare, it shouldn't be forgotten that this period of frustration usually extends itself right through the Christmas period. For the next month or so Chelsea will be playing more or less every three days, starting with a home tie on Wednesday to Steaua Bucherest in the Champions  League, an up-for-it Crystal Palace on Saturday in the Premier League, Sunderland (again) in the Capital One Cup on the 17th, Arsenal away on the eve of Christmas Eve, Swansea on Boxing Day and Liverpool the 28th.

That's quite a load when you look at the individual teams involved. And even with the size of squad at Mourinho's disposal, you expect some strife. If, like Stoke on Saturday, Sunderland for most of last Tuesday's match, and Southampton throughout the entire first half the other Sunday, these teams play to frustrate Chelsea, it could be a very unfestive festive season.

The solution? I'm sure José knows best, but his reliance on playing a single striker up front with his line of talented attacking midfielders behind may need to change. Against Southampton Chelsea looked more potent with Torres and Ba upfront and Mata behind them. It was a simple change that paid instant dividends. 

Perhaps it's time for Mourinho to swallow his defensive principles and double-up up front more often. It may just make the (goal) difference in one of the most open seasons in living memory when it comes to dishing out Champions League places come next May.

And it may just preserve some semblance of the season of goodwill from those of us up in the stands who should be loving every minute of Mourinho's return to Stamford Bridge. Not that we'd have it any other way...

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