False dawn or back on track?

Last week Chelsea manoeuvred a potentially tricky visit to Copenhagen smoothly and with very little fuss, but does this mean that their season is now back on track, or will it dip once more on their return to domestic duty against Manchester United on Tuesday? Before this can be answered, it is essential to document just when and where their season began to fall apart, and whether it can still be salvaged.

After beginning this season in such scintillating form it looked a forgone conclusion that the Premier League title would remain in west London for another year at least. The Blues were the first team to ever begin a Premier League season with back to back 6-0 victories, and looked on course to emulate last season’s record goal difference . The first stumble was defeat at ‘Eastlands’ by a single goal to a fortunate City side, but the team got back to their best with a victory against Marseille, and then outclassed Arsenal. One of their season’s turning points was the Fernando Torres inflicted defeat to the occasionally decent, but thoroughly unpredictable Liverpool. That lose came on the 7th November, but the London side remained top with a 2 points lead and a game in hand on United, and it appeared to be just another blip. They followed up this defeat with a victory in the West London derby against Fulham at the Bridge, and their season still appeared to be very much still on. The day after however the Chelsea season hit turbulence.

On November 11th, Ray Wilkins, the long standing assistant manager had his contract terminated with immediate effect. it was an unexpected decision for Wilkins, and for the Chelsea playing squad. He has been an integral part of recent Chelsea development, working under Scolari, Hiddink and Ancelotti, and has been a settled vessel amongst the management uncertainty at Stamford Bridge since 2007. Wilkins is well known to have built up  a rapport with the Chelsea squad, and to have utilised his experience to help get the best out of the team. Carlo Ancelotti claimed that “without him, we couldn’t have won a thing”, and I would wholeheartedly agree with him. His presence was required to allow the medley of recent foreign managers find their feet at the Bridge, and to liaise between the players and the manager. The unexpected news was given to Wilkins whilst he was watching a Chelsea reserve team game, and its reasoning is still yet to emerge. He was replaced by the club’s former head of opposition scout, Michael Emenalo, a man appointed by Avram Grant in 2007. Although Emenalo seamlessly slid into the position, he is a less animated man, and it has been easy to see at times how much Wilkins has been missed.

In the 14 league games since Wilkins’ dismissal, Chelsea have been on a horrendous run of form, and it is a far cry from the all conquering side of Jose Mourinho. They have only managed to garner 17 points from a possible 42, and are in danger of not qualifying for next season’s Champions’ League. Can this all be a result of Wilkins’ dismissal, or are there other factors involved in the mix? It can be argued that this season has been one of Chelsea’s most unfortunate for injuries, and that after a summer clear out, those that have departed, have not been sufficiently replaced. It has been the core of the side that has been hit the worst, with problems in both defence and midfield. The normally omnipresent Frank Lampard has been absent more than he has played, and the team have missed his assuredness and fluidity, as well as his goalscoring prowess. His absence has been compounded by that of Michael Essien, who when he has featured, has not been the dominating man-mountain of seasons gone by, and often looks off the pace. Gone from last season’s double winning squad are the experienced Deco, Ballack, Joe Cole and Belletti, and their replacements: Benayoun and Ramires have struggled with fitness, and acclimatisation to the English game, resulting in a stuttering midfield visibly lacking the composure of season’s gone by.

Perhaps most worrying from a Chelsea point of view, has been the indecision and lack of stability at the back. Petr Cech still appears to be affected by his incident with Stephen Hunt, and is hesitant and nervous when the ball is whipped across his box at pace, or when he has to contest an aerial battle with physical opposition. He has saved Chelsea valuable points this season, but is not the commanding presence that he once was, and this lack of confidence resonates through the back line. John Terry has remained his committed self, but even he is human, and has had lapses of concentration. As a result of injuries to Alex and Ivanovic he hasn’t been able to have a constant partner next to him in the centre of defence, and when an unfamiliar player has filled in, the understanding is noticeably lacking. In January Ancelotti brought in the highly rated Brazilian David Luiz to finally fill the void left by Ricardo Carvalho who moved to Madrid over the summer. Luiz is obviously talented, and will be a great ball playing defender for Chelsea, but he needs time to bed in, and to adapt to the speed of the Premier League. He impressed on his first start against Fulham, but was clumsy and rash in bringing Clint Dempsey down, which resulted in a missed penalty for the Cottagers.

It can be argued that alongside the gaps in Chelsea’s formally formidable armoury, the back bone of the vastly successful team are all ageing, and will soon have to be replaced. Lampard  and Drogba are 33 this year, Terry and Anelka are into their 30s, and even the much maligned Ashley Cole will be 31 this year. They are developing the next generation of world beaters, and are starting to ease promising youngsters into the side, with perhaps the ones to watch in the years to come being playmaker Josh McEachran, the goal poacher Daniel Sturridge and Luiz.

It appears that the best way to describe the current Chelsea situation, is one of turbulent transition, that has rendered the season a disappointing one. Two examples of this transition spring to mind; firstly Alex Ferguson’s recent response to John Terry’s pointless claim that United could falter at the top of the table, as he ruled out Chelsea from recovering the 15 points deficit. In recent years the two sides have been neck and neck, and I am sure that the Scotsman is both shocked and relieved by the shortcomings of the Londoners, with the Premier League title really being United’s to lose this season. Secondly after the signing of Fernando Torres in January, Ancelotti has been forced to tinker with his frontline to attempt to accommodate the Spaniard, and as a result the goals have dried up, and the team have been disjointed. In recent seasons, Drogba and Anelka have been two of the first names on the team sheet, and have proved themselves time and time again to be capable match winners, but neither appears to be a good fit with the new £50 million man, and Drogba has been jettisoned to the bench. With the huge amount of money spent on the striker, Ancelotti has to persist with Torres until he eventually comes good, or else lose face.

As long as they are still in the Champions’ League, there is still a chance that Chelsea’s season can be rescued, and that they will have a trip to Wembley. They will however need to get their season back on track with victory at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday, and if they can coax the best out of their frontline, then they will be unplayable. Wilkins’ departure in the middle of the season left the team unsettled and confused, and there is obviously something rotten at the centre of the club, but they can press on for the final third of the campaign, and finish on a high. It is a side in transition, that has the ability to return to greatness once more, they just need to settle down, regain their confidence and to get back on track.