The moment of truth has arrived

By Justin Weible
Dec 5th, 2012

Tonight, Chelsea will welcome FC Nordsjaelland to West London with the knowledge that nothing less than a win will be enough to qualify for the knockout stages of this season’s Champions League, and even that may not be enough if Juventus and Shakhtar Donetsk play to any sort of draw. Roberto Di Matteo was sacked as Chelsea manager days after failing to earn at least a draw against Juventus in Turin. Now interim manager Rafa Benitez finds himself in a position where a win might not be good enough. Talk about pressure.

It doesn’t help that Chelsea have been on a horrendous run of form, having picked up just 4 points from their last 21 possible in the Premier League. Things couldn’t have ended up much worse last Saturday, as Chelsea failed to beat a West Ham side that were all but finished off in the first half before the team capitulated, conceding 3 goals in the final half an hour for a famous Hammers win.

However, in Nordsjaelland, they do welcome a side that has a tendency to play a more cavalier brand of football than the pragmatic approach of Sam Allardyce, and you would think that it would suit a Chelsea side that have struggled to create spaces against more physically imposing and structured sides. Considering that the first meeting ended 3-0 and the Danish side did pose one or two problems, nothing should be taken for granted, and it’s imperative that the players show a bit of mettle that could be argued was lacking at the weekend. To be honest, this is all about what Chelsea must do, because this is a match that big teams should win to prove their mental strength.

You can’t start to look at Nordsjaelland without looking at what might happen.
Oh, that night in Turin. How it has changed the fortunes of the side. Defeat in the last round at Juventus Stadium means that any sort of result that doesn’t see Juventus being defeated means that Chelsea become the first team in the history of Champions League to win the competition and fail to get out of the group stages the next season. That, however, is a bit of a misnomer, simply because Liverpool in 2005-2006 very nearly missed the Champions League altogether by finishing 5th in the league.

However, that should not paper over the fact that Chelsea’s fate was in their hands, and they failed to take advantage of it. Now they must rely on Shakhtar to want to put on a performance in front of their home support at the Donbass Arena and beat Juventus, when a draw is mutually beneficial. If I’m to be frank, I would expect that Shakhtar would like to have a go at Juventus, considering they probably should have beat them in their first meeting. However, stranger things have happened and mutual unspoken agreements are made.

Chelsea need to find leadership on the pitch and fast.
The one thing that’s become apparent in recent weeks is that this team without the full spine of Petr Cech, John Terry, and Frank Lampard intact seem to lack a bit of leadership and drive on the pitch. Cech has done his best, but it’s always difficult for a goalkeeper to be the inspirational leader from so far back. That makes the absence of Terry and Lampard all the more concerning because it’s been those two, along with Didier Drogba, who over the years have personified the never say die attitude.

This side, however, seems to be missing that spark at the moment. Perhaps it’s an over dependency on those two players over the years. Perhaps it’s the relative lack of players in the category of development where they’re willing to step forward and lead.

However, it was clear on the weekend that the drive and determination that was shown in defying the odds in last season’s competition hasn’t been present in this iteration of the team. If ever there was a time that someone needs to step forward, it’s now.

Nordsjaelland are not going to come to Stamford Bridge and just roll over.
Nordsjaelland have their own motivation to do well in this match. For one, in their first meeting in Denmark, the Danish side acquitted themselves very well and for long periods of time looked as if they could be a threat. Much like Shakhtar, they are a side who have been together for a decent amount of time and play passing football, although they don’t possess the overall ability that Shakhtar have.

Number two, Nordsjaelland come in to match feel mildly aggrieved by the result against Shakhtar and the unsporting goal scored by Luiz Adriano that brought them level early. Although they managed to get back on even terms, they were clearly unsettled by that goal that was allowed, and Shakhtar proceeded to put 5 by them. They will be looking to gain their first victory in this season’s competition, and what better way to close out the group for Nordsjaelland than a famous away victory.

Chelsea must work out exactly how they want to play.
It will be interesting to see the approach that Chelsea will take in this match. They will know from the first meeting that Norsdjaelland will play an expansive passing game that should give them spaces to exploit. However, they will also be wary of the fact that West Ham gave them similar spaces at the weekend, then tightened up at the half, and hammered home a victory.

The big thing that I’ve noticed lately is the lack of simple possession of the ball. While not necessarily direct, it appears that the idea of keeping the passing and movement simple to retain possession, especially with the lead, is not part of this team’s DNA. In past seasons, 1-0 generally was enough to get a victory as the side would simply take the ball and squeeze the life out of the opposition to hold the lead.

However, with the addition of more creative minded players, there seems to be an attitude where the team simply wants to attack, attack, attack at all times and all scores, regardless of whether the shape is maintained or the possession is lost too easily. If there’s one thing that I’ve noticed is that there’s a penchant for trying to play the defence-splitting ball every time that usually results in concession of possession. It certainly was the case at the weekend.

Is this Chelsea side fit enough?
My final point is one that Benitez has brought up and one that I’ve wondered about since the departure of Di Matteo. With so many matches to be played, were the players fit enough to complete a full 90 minutes and maintain their concentration levels and intensity?

From the looks of things, that is one thing that we can all question. Against West Ham, after 10 minutes of the second half, it appeared that the team was trying to coast a bit. After the first goal went in, it felt as if the team collectively had seen their legs (and maybe their will, but that’s a totally different problem), and simple mistakes were made. By the time the third goal was scored, the entire team was at 4’s and 5’s and appeared to have lost all concentration. For a side of this experience and quality, you can’t imagine that they all forgot how to play football. The logical answer to what went wrong is that fatigue had caused them to all lose concentration and allowed West Ham to win a fairly physical contest.

That’s one thing that Benitez can’t be responsible for. Given the run of games and the lack of available preseason, he’s had very little time to improve the fitness levels and with a small squad is having to make do with what he’s got. However, given the run of goals that we seem to concede late, you wonder if poor fitness isn’t a part of the problem. If the body’s tired, the mind cannot be fresh.

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