Thursday, April 03, 2014

Time to sharpen the knife

Time to ‘fess up. In a post on this very blog I stated in January 2011 that Chelsea buying Fernando Torres for £50 million was good business. Which shows you how much I know about business.

Since then, Torres has lurched from teenage indifference to occasional bursts of interest and back again, but still his striking skills appear to be suffering from locked-in syndrome.

And so his career as a Chelsea striker reached its nadir on Wednesday night when José Mourinho didn’t even pick him – or any other recognised striker, for that matter – to start against Paris St. Germain in their Champions League quarter-final.

Torres’ lack of a future at Chelsea is probably now a given thing. The club’s patience has apparently reached breaking point and the word is that the Spaniard, currently on £175,000 a week, will leave in the summer, possibly in a cut-price fire-sale to Inter. Was he worth it? No. Should he have gone sooner? Well only if there would have been a club mad enough to take on this tragically broken player.

Before you think otherwise, however, Wednesday's 3-1 defeat in the Parc des Princes hasn’t prompted me to turn on Chelsea. Nor has last Saturday’s league loss to Crystal Palace, allowing Liverpool to leapfrog into the top spot. And if, as the case may be, we end the season without silverware, I won’t complain. Mourinho was right: Chelsea are, this term, still a small horse.

We should – or, at least, I am – be somewhat cautious about Mourinho’s poetic expectation management. When you can afford to lose a playmaker like Juan Mata because you have at your disposal Eden Hazard, Oscar, Willian and André “Don’t Call Me” Schürrle, with Mohamed Salah brought in to boost the wing, things aren’t so bad. A brace of own goals aside, Chelsea still have one of football’s meanest defences, with Terry and Cahill together showing what England will be missing in the summer, and even César Azpilicueta converting to left back with apparent ease to displace Ashley Cole.

The return of Nemanja Matić to Chelsea in January finally (or at least hopefully) saw John Obi Mikel resigned to the bench. I’ve never understood what it was that Chelsea saw in him in the first place, or why they needed to gazump Manchester United to secure his signature. Matić has instantly demonstrated a classier approach to the holding midfield position, and unlike Mikel, doesn’t look like a red card waiting to happen.

So, the nucleus of a great side is there, and if we’re prepared to let this season lie fallow in terms of major honours, the Mourinhoisation of Chelsea in the summer will be very significant, indeed.

Out will most certainly go Torres, Cole and Mikel, with Ba and even Eto’o another possibility. Barcelona’s transfer ban might limit David Luiz’s escape possibilities – though if Mourinho could just get better discipline out of him he could be a very good attacking midfielder.

The club must also do something about its wage bill under UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules, which might also see a judicious pruning of the ludicrous list of players out on loan – including the highly prized Romelu Lukaku and Thibaut Courtois, plus Marko Marin, Victor Moses and the English pair of Ryan Bertrand and Josh McEachran.

Another departure might be the forgotten Gäel Kakuta, the 22-year-old Frenchman whose transfer from Lens led to Chelsea being banned from transfers for a year in September 2009, the player receiving a Eur 780,000 fine for breaking his contract and a four-month ban from playing for his new club. Was it worth it, one might still ask.

Who goes is one thing - who comes in is another entirely. The starting appearance on Wednesday of winger Schürrle in the ‘Number 9’ centre-forward position merely served to highlight Chelsea’s total lack of striking power.

"I'm not happy with my strikers' performances, so I have to try things," Mourinho said of his decision to play the German up front against PSG. "With Andre at least I know we have one more player to have the ball, we have one more player to associate with the other players. "Football is also about scoring goals. That is for strikers, for real strikers. I had to try." Ouch.

This season Torres has again been mostly like a broken pencil – pointless; Eto’o has at least repaid some of the faith in his maturing potency, but he is never going to be a Chelsea lifer; and Demba Ba has continued to be the bit-part player he was, sadly, brought in to be.

If Chelsea can shed the surpluses within its squad and either sell or play its loanees, all effort must go into signing the one type of player Chelsea probably hasn’t had since Kerry Dixon’s days (and yes, I do remember Didier Drogba).

There are plenty Roman Abramovich’s wallet could stretch for - Monaco’s Radamel Falcao, Atletico’s Diego Costa, Corinthians' Pato, currently at Sao Paulo, Milan's exquisitely-bouffant Stephan El Shaarawy, the raving nutjob Mario Balotelli or even one of Chelsea's tormentors in Paris, PSG's Edinson Cavani.

Another option might be to return Lukaku to the fold, but with the Belgian apparently looking to either stay permanently at Everton or move to Tottenham, it's clear that his heart will never be at Chelsea. Which certainly looked the case when I last saw him in a Chelsea shirt.

However Chelsea spend their money, the need for a striker becomes ever more paramount as we reach the end of the season. In the Premier League, the lack of goals to boost both goal difference over the free-scoring Liverpool and Manchester City, and to compensate for any more accidents in front of their own goal, is starting to tell.

For the last four years there hasn't been a single Chelsea player to score more than 15 goals in a Premier League season, whereas in the 2009-10 run Drogba and Frank Lampard struck 29 and 22 times respectively. By comparison, Torres, Eto'o and Ba have just 25 between them in all competitions and just 11 in the Premier League campaign by itself.

Whichever direction Chelsea goes in to look for a new striker, they will be limited by UEFA financial restrictions. That will hopefully mean the Blues don't end up buying another money pit of a lemon as they did with Andriy Shevchenko. And Adrian Mutu. And Alexei Smertin. And Juan Sebastian Veron. And Hernán Crespo. And Nicolas Anelka. I won't go on...

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