After a two week break for the international matches the Premier League awoke from its slumber at Stamford Bridge this afternoon. By early this evening, though, with Liverpool having plundered all three points from this match, Chelsea supporters must be wondering whether it is possible for them to pull the covers back over their faces and grab a couple more hours of shut-eye. Their club is stuttering, and the remaining likelihood of their being able to keep up with Manchester City and Manchester United at the top of the table is already only barely visible on the horizon. More troubling still, it is now plausible to ask the question of whether they will be able to hang on to the Champions League place that has come to be regarded as a right in recent years.
The defeat certainly leaves the club in a more precarious position than they have been in recent years. They are still level on points with Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool and Arsenal, but Spurs have two games in hand upon them and will leapfrog them with just a draw against Aston Villa in the last match of the weekend tomorrow night, Liverpool are now nine games unbeaten and Arsenal seem to have overcome the demons that plagued the start of their season. Even if Newcastle United peaked prior to their defeat at Manchester City yesterday, the other two Champions League places still look as if they will be a matter of two from four amongst these clubs, and the dysfunction at Chelsea hardly bodes well for the club.
Difficulties haven’t only been coming on the pitch. The Chelsea Pitch Owners argument caused a rift between the club and a critical element of its support, whilst the allegations made against John Terry have continued to rumble on in the background without having been resolved one way or the other. This, combined with comparatively inconsistent league form, has led to a feeling of discontent at Chelsea which may not even have reached a peak just yet. Disappointing form on the pitch only adds to this, and there are also those that are looking at Andres Villa Boas, the Chelsea manager, and wondering whether he is fit for purpose. Whether it is absurd to be doing this after just twelve matches of the league season is unlikely to prevent the seeds of doubt about him being planted in the minds of some, though.
This afternoon, Chelsea came up short against a Liverpool side that remains an unfinished product itself. The sole moment of genuine quality during the first half came from Maxi Rodriguez, following some excellent build-up play by Charlie Adam, Luis Suarez and Craig Bellamy, but the first half seldom had the feel of being a match between two sides capable of challenging Manchester City and Manchester United at the top of the table. A Chelsea equaliser early in the second half might have provided the spark to bring the home side back to life. Florent Malouda was allowed to run and run, before a mis-hit shot which Dan Sturridge turned in from close range.
That Chelsea failed to seize the initiative and turn this match into three points with their levelling goal was a reflection upon the uncharacteristic lack of confidence with which the team is playing at the moment. Both teams tussled and and struggled without either ever looking significantly likely to take control of the game, but with three minutes left to play Glen Johnson provided a rare moment of excellence with some beautiful ball control, a smart run and a tidy curling shot to take all three points back to Anfield. This hadn’t been one of Liverpool Football Club’s more glorious performances – the afternoon had been a war of attrition in which the two sides were only separated by one moment of excellence – but it had proved to be enough to see them keep their challenge for a return to the Champions League back on track.
One of the questions that could be posed this evening is whether Chelsea Football Club was set up for a transitional season. The pressures of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules make qualification an absolute necessity, one at which failure is not an option. With the spine of the team that had so much success now starting to show signs of the wear and tear that comes with the aging process and new acquisitions still not having fully knitted together, though, the possibility of the league position which the club had started to assume as a right is now coming under threat, and the itchy trigger-finger of those that run the club when it comes to the managerial position means that Andres Villa Boas will already be starting to feel a little warmth on the back of his neck.
There can be little question of Villa Boas’ abilities as a coach – he proved his capability at his previous appointment in Portugal. If he is not to end up another body being passed through the Stamford Bridge managerial mincing machine, though, he needs to stamp his authority on his squad quickly. It was to be hoped that his appointment on a five year contract during the summer would be a turning point in the club’s recent policy of hiring at firing at will. Whether the leopards of the Chelsea boardroom have changed their spots may become more apparent over the next few days and weeks or so. Liverpool, meanwhile, continue their pursuit of a Champions League place, but with question marks also hanging over them. What effect, for example, might a guilty verdict in the case of Luis Suarez vs the Football Association have on the harmony of the team? Suarez has, after all, been by a distance Liverpool’s best and most consistent performer this season and a lengthy ban for him (which is a possibility) may hit them hard.
Such shortcomings at each club provide ample reason why Manchester City and Manchester United are looking as if they will pull clear at the top of the Premier League. There was too much chaos and too little theory on display at Stamford Bridge this afternoon and the good recent form of Spurs and Arsenal means that both clubs have reason to be concerned at missing out on the Champions League come the end of the season. Liverpool, however, did just enough this afternoon and the psychological lift that comes with picking up three points at Stamford Bridge may be enough to blow away the cobwebs that came with recent disappointing performances at home against Norwich City and Swansea City. Chelsea, meanwhile, have been here before and the question that their supporters now face is that of what comes next and how the club’s owners react to it.
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