Serbian quality: Ivanović puts it away with a header.
José Mourinho is a lucky man. Eleven years ago, he won Champions League with FC Porto only because the referee Valentin Ivanov chalked off one, totally legitimate goal by Paul Scholes that would pull Manchester United through at the cost of Portugal team in Champions League’s Round of 16. Six years after that accident, Mou took his second CL title with Inter by setting up a desperate, bus-parking defence against Barcelona on Camp Nou; a strategy that miraculously worked against arguably the best team of the era, even despite Inter being down to ten men in the second leg. More recent example of his luck was a Stamford Bridge battle against an insipid Everton team, in which Chelsea has been banging their heads against the wall until 90th minute, when Willian sealed the deal somehow, thanks to a long-range, desperate strike. And now, it has happened again: despite heading for a certain loss and creating no danger upfront whatsoever, The Blues scored a hugely important away goal and drew a game in which Paris Saint-Germain failed to make the best of their chances. If that not enough to prove the point: after the game, Mourinho himself admitted he was fortunate there. Yeah – but what now?
Chelsea’s ambitions to win Premier League, Champions League and Football League Cup are seriously threatened. In less than two week, they’ll go to Wembley to try and claim their first trophy of the season, but with Tottenham eyeing the same goal and having the advantage of confidence after a 5-3 league win over The Blues early this year, things may easily go badly for CFC. In Premier League, Chelsea have already dodged a bullet when Manchester City managed to close the gap in January only to lose the momentum again and allow another seven-point gap to occur. But can a domestic title satisfy someone who’s been waiting for years to taste his third Champions League victory? Obviously not – especially since it would be basically won by the virtue of having a team that chokes less than the massively erratic City. And that’s the problem: because, frankly, with this kind of performances the team has delivered against Everton and PSG, Chelsea is nowhere close to the status of a serious CL contender. No-where-near; especially not while Real Madrid and Bayern Munich are still in the race. Had Chelsea done it anyway this season by playing like that, it would’ve been even bigger fluke than the 2011-12 victory.
Mourinho’s main concern right now must be the end product of their attacks. Since the away 5-0 trashing of Swansea City, his players scored three goals in three games – and two of those games were played against notoriously terrible defences of Liverpool FC. Diego Costa, who had an outstanding start of the season,scoring his 10th Premier League goal in the 9th appearance, has spent last 261 minutes of playtime by being an anonymous figure. The ex-Brazilian striker has contributed only 3 shots, 5 dribbles and 5 fouls in those three games, earning one yellow card in the process. The overall impression is even worse than the stats: without Cesc Fàbregas around, Costa did not receive any killer balls to work with and he didn’t pick up any chances arising from opponent’s mistakes – chances that’s been gifted to him many times in the past. It’s hardly a surprise that PSG, who have better quality at the back than Liverpool does, managed to keep him quiet too. Is this his another “mini-slump” similar to the one he had in late November and early December? It’s hard to say, but at the moment, Loïc Rémy, the notoriously underused man, looks like a better option.
The catch is: Mourinho strongly dislikes to change his starting eleven, regardless of players’ form or even the results. He persistently sticks to the same players, believing that team chemistry is ultimately more important than the fresh legs. He assumes that once everything clicks on the pitch between his hand-picked, small pack of players – they will be able to collectively to deliver the wins regardless of the fatigue. And, by doing that, he marginalizes the role of his backup players. Does anybody remember that Mohamed Salah used to be The Blues’ player? Because I don’t. And what’s up with German wingers: André Schürrle and Marko Marin? The two most promising German wingers quickly became obsolete, either through loans or, in Schürrle’s case, by warming club bench until a recent transfer to VfL Wolfsburg went through. And, while we’re at it: was Kevin De Bruyne, the current leader of German Wolves, really a lesser of attacking midfielder prospect than Oscar? He certainly isn’t now; in fact, the Belgian, who’s only three months older than his Chelsea colleague, delivers the goods much more often than the player he’s lost a first-team battle to in London.
Chelsea could really use some squad adjustments right now. It’s not just about Costa or Oscar; Eden Hazard, the man hailed as the next big thing, is currently struggling too. His case is quite curious, as the efforts he puts in are decent – only the impact suffers. To put it bluntly, Hazard dribbles, passes and crosses just as frequently as ever but it all goes to waste one way or another. Against PSG, he would often pick up the ball under heavy pressure from the opponents and try to shrug it off with a run. However, the tactics of luring extra players into his vicinity and opening the extra space for someone else didn’t work. Hazard was fouled persistently and even won a booking in the second half for Gregory van der Wiel – something that could’ve been useful for those attacks down the left wing. Yet, the counterattacks that might make his pace and vision useful were not coming at all; and in fact, the one time a fast break was possible, Hazard himself shut it down with a failed pass down the middle – the pass that soon after allowed Ibrahimović to nearly score a match-winner in 59th minute. Thus, as it stands, the Belgian has 13 goals and 7 assists in 37 games this season. Messi, Ronaldo comparisons? Not even close to these two.
Physical warfare: on Tuesday, Hazard was fouled 9 times.
In times when the forward four is not bagging the goals, it’s time for other players to step up in the area that’s normally not their piece of business. And, fortunately for Chelsea, they do. Nemanja Matić, from whom everybody expected the Claude Makelele / Michael Essien / John Obi Mikel style of defensive midfielding, is currently the whole new quality of play on that position, fearlessly going forward by dribbling past rivals and spraying difficult passes when it’s needed. At the same time, his Serbian fellow, Branislav Ivanović has a strange ability to finish off the chances coming from the set-pieces of any kind. Against PSG, it has all come together to create the weirdest paradox: in 36th minute, it was a centre-back Terry who crossed the ball into the box, the other centre-back Cahill flicked it in a truly Ronaldinhoesque style and right-back Ivanović easily headed it into the back of the net. Of course, had David Luiz been thinking faster instead of being a mere spectator to this shot, it would’ve never happened. But, since it did: credits to them, for they’ve created the only clear goalscoring chance for Chelsea through the entire game.
That being said, the second half of that clash just kept getting worse and worse for Chelsea players. On Tuesday evening, PSG midfielders have shown an exceptional toughness and dominated the middle of the park. Without Thiago Motta, it was Luiz’s job to sweep most of the loose balls and even despite his mistake in 36th minute, he did much better job than he normally does as a centre-back. The other key player from Parc des Princes, Blaise Matuidi, was even more impressive, using his athleticism to cover insane distance and influence the game on both sides of the pitch. After this game, the Frenchman has the average of over 11 kilometres ran per each CL game and only three players in the Europe – including Chelsea’s Matić – are more persistent runners than he is. Even Verratti, who’s not at all suited to win the possession back, kept challenging Chelsea player over and over again. There’s no question that their joint efforts disrupted the game Fàbregas and Willian were so successful with earlier this season. Searching Costa was pretty much out of question and so was looking for a long shots; the Parisians bossed this game in the middle in all departments.
Normally, a domination in the middle of the park should soon translate into goals. This time, it was different. Taken care of by Terry, Ibrahimović got on the end of only two promising passes, out of which both were saved by Courtois. The former Atletico goalie was hands down the best CFC player on the pitch and did the job only few people in the world could repeat, given the circumstances. His show started ten minutes into the game, when he had to push out a dangerous header from Matuidi. Later on, Edinson Cavani, who’s been overall the most dangerous player PSG had on the pitch, headed a corner ball from a tight angle and the goalie had to act quickly and punch it away. Cavani, having a field day down the left wing, will probably have nightmares after this match: after scoring an equalizer in 54th minute, he had a perfect opportunity to follow it up ten minutes before the final whistle, when dribbled past Cahill only to take a misplaced shot that barely missed the far post of Courtois’ goal. Regardless of that, the Uruguayan star has been instrumental to the home team’s advantage: at one point, the game basically turned into a festival of crossing and on Tuesday, Cavani delivered better crosses than anyone else on the pitch. All in vain.
Thus Chelsea has been absolved of their sins that day; but it doesn’t mean the fate will be on their side forever. Where the improvements can come from? Their new midfielder, Cuadrado had an average game against Toffees and two appearances as a substitute in which he mostly played it safe and could not really be remembered for doing anything special. Kurt Zouma, the centre-back that Mourinho relied on during Cahill’s dip of form is back on the bench even despite the most outstanding job he’s done when he was on the pitch. Mikel is injured; Remy’s case was mentioned earlier. Drogba, lethal against Schalke earlier this season, hardly gets a game these days. Ramires just doesn’t cut it when he’s going forward. Filipe Luis? Currently, the best bench-warmer in the world, but his future looks bleak as long as Azpilicueta is fit to play. No, for a team that’s owned by a billionaire and has almost bottomless pit of money, Chelsea has very few people that could’ve been put out there and immediately lift the team despite not being the regular starters. Right now, The Special One really has no choice but to work with the small group he has.
But, on the other hand, last season, he was close to running away with English Title in the pocket even without Fàbregas or Costa! Is his luck infinite? Because if this team he has right now triumphs on Olympiastadion in May – it most likely is.