Tuesday, December 15, 2015
It's beginning to look a lot like the nightmare before Christmas
Given the December temperatures, there was something decidedly incongruous about the three thousand or so visiting Chelsea supporters in the King Power Stadium last night invoking Bob Marley's Three Little Birds by singing "Baby, don't worry about a thing". The home crowd responded with "Championship, gonna be alright".
Leicester City's fans can more than afford to be cocky, and Chelsea fans should appreciate the gallows humour, if nothing else. Claudio Ranieri's team earned it: their unlikely reverse - relegation threatened at the end of last season - is every bit as remarkable as the position Chelsea now find themselves in. 16th place on the back of nine league defeats is relegation form, and from a team many pundits were expertly predicting back in August would retain the Barclays Premier League title as favourites.
Less than a week ago we were celebrating, sort of, Chelsea's comfortable win over Porto and their progression into the last 16 of the Champions League. Yesterday morning I was bemoaning the fact that UEFA's sticky balls had paired the Blues again with PSG. But, frankly, these are minor irritations.
The modest relief of being in the knockout stages of the Champions League - which, believe it or not, Chelsea's Jeckyll & Hyde act could go on to win - was severely undermined by not only the way they lost to Leicester (the remarkable Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez not withstanding) but by the abject, rancid mood that José Mourinho brought on his team in the aftermath, publicly berating Oscar, Eden Hazard and Diego Costa and talking of being "betrayed" that all his hard preparation had been ignored.
If Costa, in particular, had an issue with Mourinho, or if Hazard - whose early "injury" was another bizarre episode involving the Belgian (remember Swansea City on the first day of the season?) - is to be tempted to Paris or Madrid, then such managerial pychology will only add more risk to Mourinho's already precarious state.
I've now lost count of the times since August 8 that I've written how something in the minds of Chelsea's manager and players has to change. It still hasn't. When the fixture list came out in July, you would have put decent money on Chelsea winning at home to Norwich and Bournemouth, or away to Leicester. In fact, you should have put money on those being defeats - I shudder to think what odds you'd have received.
When a manager gets sacked, it's always too easy for the players to bleat about letting him down and "we should have done more". In Mourinho's case, I just wonder whether he's had the capability in that big, brilliant footballing brain of his to process his team's obvious physical and mental declines. Why hasn't he made more use of the youthful exuberence of players like Kenedy and Loftus-Cheek, along with the myriad others out on loan? Why has he laboured on with Fàbregas when anyone with resonable vision has been able to see that his passes don't connect anymore...and that was his main mission in life.
You could say that Leicester's win last night was simply in the script, that somehow the Gods of Football decreed that the team managed by the man Chelsea sacked in favour of the man Chelsea now have in charge again should win. Because that, like dodgy Champions League draws, makes for better headlines, better banter and better studio conversations.
The reality is that Ranieri has found the formula and the players. Mourinho has just lost it. It may be misfortune, or it maybe the result of poor choices made by the club, but despite my belief that managers often unfairly carry the blame, the only logical conclusion you can reach from Chelsea's inexplicable - and very real - drop into relegation danger is that it is down to one man, a man who last night said "all last season I did phenomenal work and brought them to a level more than they really are", who wanted to single out his defenders for their movement around Vardy, and even had the temerity to have a pop at Leicester's ball-boys as "a disgrace to the Premier League".
With the exception of notable efforts against Spurs away and Porto at home Chelsea have just not been good enough in almost every department. Asmir Begovic has made a fine stand-in for Thibaut Courtois in goal, but both have been let down by their defenders too many times; in the midfield, Matic has been half the holding player he was last season, and Fàbregas lacking in pace, passing and perserverence; up front, Costa has been out of position and often out of order, while Hazard and the permanently Bambi-like Oscar have clearly been wanting for confidence. Only Willian has at least shown, to quote Harold Shand, "a little bit more than an 'ot dog, know what I mean?".
Football today is too quick to point to the manager. Chelsea has, in its recent past, been too quick to fire theirs. José Mourinho, and his three-year plan, was intended to establish a "dynasty". Where is that now? After one season as "the little horse", the second as the front-runner, for the third Chelsea are now looking more like a lame donkey giving out-of-season rides on Blackpool beach.
Even I have been amazed by Roman Abramovich's restraint, and as much as I loathe football's propensity for sacking managers after only the slightest of dips, I don't see the Chelsea owner having any alternative now.