Tuesday, November 03, 2015

"Just when you thought it couldn't get worse"

So there it is, right there at the top of this page: the inevitable title of the inevitable book that will be written about this season for Chelsea. A horror, a nightmare, an unrelenting disaster - and we're still only at the beginning of November. And it WILL get worse, trust me. It already has.

On Saturday morning I added to my already lengthy list of posts about this season’s travails by recounting the defeat to the New York Red Bulls in pre-season, defeat to Arsenal in the Community Shield on August 2, a draw with Swansea on the season’s opening day and that ridiculous Eva Carneiro episode, five more defeats in the league, exit from the League Cup, fines, referee baiting and José Mourinho's increasing volatility, and last season’s lions fading before our very eyes this term, all resulting in the 2014-15 Premier League champions tailspinning into relegation form.

So that was the state of affairs on Saturday morning. Pretty much plenty to consume any other club for a whole season, let alone its first three months. By Saturday afternoon, it became still worse. A 3-1 defeat at home to Liverpool, having taken the lead early and with convincing intent. Cue more Mourinho petulance - sarcastically guffawing at Mark Clattenburg's infuriating decision not to give Lucas a deserved second yellow card, his “Yes, No” interview with BT Sport’s Des Kelly, and that bizarre gathering of his coaches after the game, like Mafia capos taunting the FBI watching them through binoculars.

London Evening Standard/Clive Rose/Getty Images

But all of that wasn't clearly enough: 48 hours hence and the now farcical collapse of Chelsea’s fortunes has seen two further lumps of stone fall from its crumbling masonry, with Mourinho receiving a £40,000 FA fine and a one-match stadium ban for making comments to referee Jon Moss during the West Ham defeat on October 24. But wait, there’s EVEN more - Mourinho will now be the subject of individual legal action from Carneiro, following her apparent demotion and his “naive” comments during that opening day draw with Swansea.

‘House of cards’ doesn’t even cover it. It’s hard to even think of any equivalent situation anywhere else. Not even Manchester United under David Moyes. Well, maybe.

Moyes didn't so much inherit a poisoned chalice when he was handpicked by Sir Alex Ferguson to succeed him, as one tainted by a squad that may have, themselves, just romped to the Premier League title in May 2013, but was rapidly ageing, perhaps as a result. Reinforcements supplied by United's new executive vice-chairman and defacto chief executive Ed Woodward were unforthcoming, with only Marouane Fellaini arriving for £27.5 million. Hardly fresh blood.

Things started well for Moyes, winning the Community Shield at Wembley with a 2–0 win over Wigan. The opening game of the season proper saw Moyes' United beating Swansea 4-1 (oh, how things might be different now if Chelsea had beaten Swansea 4-1 on the opening day of this season!). Then things started to turn - an unpalatable 4-1 defeat to the noisy neighbours, Manchester City, a 2–1 defeat at home to West Brom, home defeats to Everton and Newcastle United in the space of four days, the spiral just didn't seem to stop.

After Christmas they exited the FA Cup in the third round, lost to Sunderland in the semi-final of the League Cup, and then lost 3-0 twice in a row, to Liverpool and, again, Manchester City. By the time Moyes was sacked in April, he'd overseen 11 losses - including six at home - and just 17 wins from 34 matches. Significantly, United were seventh in the table.

Today, Chelsea lie in 15th. On November 3. As football people like to trot out, it's a long season. Chelsea will turn it around. Mourinho will turn it around. Let's rephrase that: Mourinho can turn it around. Or Mourinho could turn it around.

The Chelsea faithful have no doubts that he will. He is just too good a manager not to, surely. But the problem with everything about Chelsea this season - on the field, off the field, in the tunnel... - has been accumalitive. Football players, and indeed managers, will say that, when a club is undergoing a change of ownership, that their focus is on the next game, and that they don't pay attention to what happens in the boardroom.

But there cannot be a single employee of Chelsea FC - the staff at Stamford Bridge or at the training ground in Cobham - that will be immune to or unaware of the negativity surrounding the club right now. As a result, I've been convinced that mysery loves company, and that this unrelenting chain of events has in some way been connected, with the team's problematic performances more the result of pyschology that physiology.

And then I read a brilliant piece by Martin Samuel, consistently Fleet Street's best football writer, in which he argued that, perhaps, we've been looking at Chelsea's struggles over the last 12 weeks through the wrong prism.

Rather than gawping at how last season's Premier League winners had, under one of football's greatest coaches (fact: eight domestic titles and three European trophies from four clubs), suddenly dropped like a stone, Samuel argued that Chelsea may not have been as good as we all thought. Last season, he surmised, may have just been the result of a hurculean effort that took them across the line early, but burned them out in the process.

That does explain Eden Hazard's lethargy this term. Last season, the on-fire forward and deserved winner of player-of-the-year awards and comparisons with Messi; this season? Careworn and with all the confidence of a nervous teenager buying his first packet of Durex at Boots.

And John Terry: whatever opinions people have of him as a person, he has been without doubt one of the greatest-ever English centrebacks, whose on-field leadership at the base of Mourinho's famous Cech-Terry-Lampard-Drogba spine provided structure for both scoring goals and preventing them.

 © Simon Poulter 2015

But no more. Terry's effectiveness has visibly eroded. It happens to us all, but for most of us, not in the spotlight of 13 possible camera positions in a televised football match. Sadly, we must accept that the "Captain. Leader. Legend." will have to relinquish that role. Alongside him, Branislav Ivanovic. Last season as vital as ever on the right side, defending and creating. But before his injury this season, a liability. One doubts he will get back to his best.

On Terry's other side, Gary Cahill. Chelsea fans were delighted by the rare event of an English player being signed by the club, but he has become regularly exposed as a distinctly average central defender. And "Dave" - Cesar Azpiliqueta - a natural right back who moved into the left back slot vacated by Ashley Cole and never back-filled by his supposed heir, Ryan Bertrand. A decent defender, who had a good season last time, but as Liverpool cruelly exploited at the weekend, vulnerable.

Samuel also highlighted Cesc Fabregas' traditional mid-season retirement, one which occurred this season before the first leaves of Autumn had even fallen, along with Nemanja Matic who had a blinder of a 2014-15 in the holding position but, like his compatriot Ivanavoic, stunk the place out before being injured on international duty.

And, then, there is the Brazilian triumvirate of Oscar, Ramires and Willian, the former of which looks like a sulky teen reluctantly getting out of bed at Noon. Of the latter two, they have at least been box-to-box industrious, but Samuel argued that we have, perhaps, held too much reverance for these Brazilians. They may come from this planet's most naturally gifted footballing nation, but they were also a part of a national side ripped assunder on home turf by Germany. Could it be that they're not, really, all that?

 © Simon Poulter 2015
Tomorrow night, the nightmare could very easily continue. A home Champions League tie with Dynamo Kiev, a team with a so-so story so far in this season's competition. A year ago, you'd have said Chelsea would have beaten them solidly. But now? Such is our lack of confidence in the team, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone with any real conviction to predict a home win.

If Chelsea lose that, and then struggle away to Stoke on Saturday afternoon, it will be impossible for Roman Abramovich not to dispense with his manager. It would be a tragedy - seriously. The fact that Mourinho hasn't been sacked so far seems to underline the widely held belief that Abramovich was serious about building a dynasty under the Portuguese.

There is no better manager for Chelsea Football Club. There is also no one else available or likely to be persuaded to available, who could pick this team up, with its clear physical frailties, and deliver a season to be proud of. Containment may be all that is left. Which means that Abramovich will could have a very big decision to make in the coming days. Does he stick, or twist?

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