- Missing Link
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After a nice week-long break for the players not involved in International matches this week, Chelsea welcome Wigan to Stamford Bridge for a meeting that might be more important to the future of Chelsea than the potential relegation struggles of Wigan. Defeat to Newcastle a week ago has piled more pressure on the head of manager Rafa Benitez, and he’ll return back to London to a likely hostile reception. Benitez must know that if he doesn’t beat Wigan, a team that his owner and supporters expect should be beaten, the notion that Roman Abramovich couldn’t possibly sack another manager may soon be tested; especially since the gap from the Blues to 6th place Arsenal is beginning to narrow.
Wigan manager Roberto Martinez has his own concerns, given his sides’ own troubles in fighting another relegation battle. The Latics have won just once in the league since December, and their torrid run of form sees them 2 points from safety in the drop zone. However, he should be buoyed by the fact that Southampton and QPR were both able to take points away from the Bridge and the fact that it’s around this time that his Wigan teams generally start to pull off the great escape. He will be hoping to repeat that trick.
First thing: Welcome back, all ye injured and suspended.
The best news for Benitez is that for the first time in about 3 weeks, he will have an almost full first team to pick from. Eden Hazard returns from his suspension, while David Luiz has recovered from his ankle problem and featured at Wembley for Brazil. Despite being kicked in the face last week, Demba Ba will make his return as his alter ego, Batman, by wearing a protective mask for his broken nose. The only two absentees to injury are Oriol Romeu and John Terry, whose knee flared up.
This should be a welcome sight for depth purposes, as until this point, Chelsea’s first 11 picked itself and there weren’t real options on the bench. All of a sudden, the depth looks a lot better, and Hazard has gotten a three-week rest break.
With the Europa League looming and the return of a match every 3 days, the return of John Mikel Obi and Victor Moses will also help matters.
Wigan are a very tricky prospect to navigate, in part because of Martinez tactical nous.
Forget the 8-0 thrashing of Wigan in the final match of the 2009-2010 season and the 6-0 beating at the start of the next season, Wigan have been a very tough nut to crack for Chelsea, with the Latics having not conceded more than 2 goals to the Blues since that 6-0 in August of 2010.
The biggest reason is that Roberto Martinez has made a tactical switch in recent seasons to play variants on the 3-5-2, something that has allowed his sides to be a bit more solid in possession and not lose the midfield battle as badly as they had been.
Against Chelsea, this is a formation that has given the Blues trouble lately. Manchester City used it to great effect in Community Shield earlier this season and Juventus were able to employ it effectively over two matches against Chelsea. The biggest concern is that Chelsea at times don’t use width effectively enough to pull the three center backs apart to exploit the space. While that doesn’t mean that you have to play orthodox wingers to stretch the defence and whip in crosses, it does mean that you have to have someone, be it fullback or winger, move wider to draw them out for closing down.
The biggest problem I’ve seen for Chelsea against this formation is the fact that without that width and without trying to play the ball into wide areas, whoever starts at center forward, Demba Ba or Fernando Torres, always find themselves marked by those three center backs as the opponents are quite happy to allow the three behind the striker to play in front of them.
The other main problem that popped up against Juventus is that Juve were able to tuck their wider players in to effectively allow them to outnumber our midfield in situations that were 3 v 2 or sometimes 5 v 2. Because there is a slight gap between the deeper midfielders and the attacking three when defending, if you flood that area, you can create chances. Don’t think that Martinez hasn’t seen that since the start of the season.
Beware the moment of magic.
Wigan will concede a goal or two. You will get chances against them, generally because of the inherent weakness to 3-5-2 against any formation that doesn’t employ two strikers. However, generally someone on the side will pull out a wonder strike from somewhere to get them a point. Last week, it was former Chelsea striker Franco Di Santo who got the chance to play hero and rescue a point.
To me, that speaks more to their team spirit. They don’t give up. From what I’ve seen from Wigan this season, they will fight and scrap until the bitter end. It will make for some interesting moments because they are capable of scoring goals, but mental lapses have been a large reason as to why they find themselves where they are in the table.
Against Chelsea, this could become quite important especially at a Stamford Bridge that will be very nervous if Wigan can keep it close.
Wigan will be very hopeful that Arouna Kone is fit from his return from the Cup of Nations.
If there is one danger man, it is Kone. With 6 goals this season, he is their leading scorer and he’s a player that can create a goal scoring chance out of nothing. If you look at their squad, Wigan really only have 3 players that fit that mould in Jordi Gomez, Shaun Maloney, and Arouna Kone. Of those three, only Kone is really a natural goal scorer. Unlike Di Santo, he is able to drag his play wide and run at the back line to create something. The Blues wlll have to watch him if he’s fit, but if he’s not, it should lead to a sigh of relief as he’s really the only player who is capable of making his own chances.
Will the atmosphere at Stamford Bridge be a factor?
While I’m in no position to tell any supporter how they are to support the club, you’re all welcome to do as you see fit within the constraints of the law. The fact is that the atmosphere at home cannot be a positive one for the players. You can argue all day about how these are professionals and the crowd shouldn’t affect them, but it does. The players can sense the tension, the urgency, and the nervousness that exists within the supporters and it does affect their play.
The anti-Rafa chants will most likely be out in full force, and if I’m Wigan, I’d take to heart the visits of Southampton and QPR and how the atmosphere affected it. Once both teams were able to get close, the air was let out of the sails and it seemed like a tomb. If Wigan can keep it close, that nervous energy will translate to the pitch and could see them get a result. Should that happen, the pressure on Mr. Benitez will grow, and I would expect that a visit from the owner may be in order.
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