AND SO THE INQUEST BEGINS
As I write, there is a strange feeling of déjà vu. Like we’ve been here before Oh yes, that’s right, I remember now, we have…….three weeks ago.
The days that follow a painful defeat are never enjoyable. Our minds are consumed by what ifs, if onlys and why didn’t hes, yet they are ultimately wasted thoughts, because as we are all only too aware, once Mike Riley blew his whistle to signal the end of the game at Anfield, as well as any lingering title aspirations we may have harboured, the damage was done: three points lost, no second chances.
True, the decision to send Frank Lampard off and allow Steven Gerrard to stay on the pitch would have been laughable had it not been so crucial, and 11 versus 11, who knows what would have happened. Yet deep down, even the most ardent of Chelsea supporters would have to admit that we didn’t do enough to win the game. In the space of three weeks we’ve conceded five goals without reply against our two biggest rivals; you can almost hear the chuckles of a certain Portuguese chap as he gets stuck into his copy of Gazetta Dello Sport.
Sadly, however, recent events and performances have conspired to make this slightly more than just an inquest. All is not well at Stamford Bridge, from the board right down to the players, and it was almost impossible to argue with Alan Hansen when he declared on Match of the Day 2 that “Chelsea are in disarray”.
There is no doubt that we are a club in freefall, and the dizzy heights of back-to-back Premiership successes seem like a lifetime ago. We haven’t been spending a lot of money recently, but worryingly, even if Roman does decide to splash the cash again, we are not the attractive destination for a player we once were. Even more worrying, however, is that it is not inconceivable for Roman to be thinking right now, what the f*** has happened here?
Most die-hard Chelsea fans who haven’t jumped on the bandwagon in recent years fully appreciate the good times; after all, why wouldn’t we? When you can remember being beaten 6-0 at QPR in March 1986, or getting stuffed 7-0 at Nottingham Forest in 1991, moaning about our current plight is akin to complaining about a migraine to somebody with a life-threatening illness.
However, what makes the current situation so hard to stomach, is the fact that it is all of our own doing. Make no mistake, everything was in place for Chelsea to dominate football, both domestically and in Europe, for many years.
With one of the worlds best managers at the helm, and an owner who was prepared to back him to the hilt financially, a squad was assembled which ticked all the boxes. A young English core, which gave the side enough of a backbone to overcome scrappy affairs up north, combined with the continental flair, touch and technique needed to produce a moment of magic in order to break down a resolute defence. Team spirit was never in doubt either; this lot were like brothers, and Jose was the father figure. They would run through brick walls for him, and each other.
Roy Keane complained in 2000 that, on the back of Manchester United’s treble success of the previous year, they had failed to strengthen the side. He was proved right when Alex Ferguson’s men were eliminated in the quarter- finals by Bayern Munich the following season. It seemed Mourinho had heeded Keane’s words, and after romping to a first Premiership title in 2004/05, he recruited Michael Essien and Shaun Wright-Phillips, as well as recalling Hernan Crespo from his loan spell at AC Milan, to replace the departing Mateja Kezman. As reinforcements go, these three would improve any squad in the world.
The 2005/06 Premiership triumph wasn’t as comfortable as the first, but it was never seriously in doubt. The season’s low point came in the FA Cup semi-final at Old Trafford, when dreams of a domestic double were shattered at the hands of… yes, you guessed it……Liverpool. Mourinho’s team selection that day left a lot to be desired, particularly the deployment of Paulo Ferreira on the right side of midfield, and maybe alarm bells should have started ringing.
After winning our second title, however, things started to go wrong. Signing Michael Ballack on a free transfer seemed questionable, but that was nothing compared to paying AC Milan £30m for the services of Andrei Shevchenko. It was this transfer in particular, that cast doubts over the manager’s relationship with the owner. Shevchenko was Abramovich’s mate, and it was evident from the start that Jose didn’t want him. As Ballack, Shevchenko and Ashley Cole arrived, consistent performers such as Gudjohnsen, Gallas, Duff and Crespo moved on; it was puzzling to say the least.
What followed could hardly be described as a bad season; FA Cup and Carling Cup winners; runners-up in the league and semi-finalists in the Champions League. Something wasn’t quite right though. Certain players, most notably Arjen Robben and Ballack, fell out with the manager, and it was made public that Abramovich and Mourinho were no longer on speaking terms.
After falling short in the two most important competitions, we needed to make a statement of intent in the transfer market, to give our rivals something to worry about. Mourinho’s relationship with the board was at breaking point though, and they were no longer prepared to back him. The purse strings were being tightened and it was time for him to wheel and deal, Barry Fry-style. The one player who could single-handedly win a game, Robben, was sold to Real Madrid, to be replaced by Florent Malouda. Claudio Pizarro, Tal Ben Haim and Steve Sidwell were the other additions. Fergie must have been laughing as he went out and snapped up Tevez, Hargreaves, Nani and Anderson; the tide was turning.
The season started badly and Mourinho was gone only a few weeks in. Avram Grant came in, and to his credit, steadied the ship. We finished the season only two points behind United in the league, and were the width of a post away from Champions League success against the same opposition. Many Chelsea fans felt, however, that the facts didn’t tell the whole story. There may have only been two points in it, but over the course of the season, United were streets ahead of us, winning games with a swagger we could only watch and admire. As for the heartbreak in Moscow…. well, the Champions League is just a cup competition really isn’t it? Anybody blessed with a half-decent squad and a bit of luck can win it. Just ask Rafael Benitez.
What has happened since that night in May has not made for pleasant viewing. Grant was given the bullet, harshly some might argue, to be replaced by Big Phil Scolari. After spending the whole summer courting top transfer target, Robinho, only to be gazumped by Manchester City at the last minute, we went into the new season with two new signings, Jose Bosingwa and Deco.
After a bright start, things have gone from bad to worse. Where Stamford Bridge was once a fortress, it’s now nothing more than a playground where the kids from the local estate come to mug the posh boys. 14 points dropped in the Premiership, plus a Carling Cup exit at the hands of Burnley, and a 1-1 draw against Southend in the FA Cup is a woeful return.
In the games against our title rivals, we’ve taken a solitary point from a possible 15, drawing once and losing four; again, woeful. The Champions League saw us scrape through in our final group game. Nothing wrong with that, you might say, but when the group is made up of Roma, Bordeaux and FC Cluj, it should never have come to that.
The recent games at Anfield and Old Trafford have painted a pretty grim picture. Five goals conceded, and barely a shot on target in return, just isn’t good enough. Petr Cech is not the keeper he was a few years ago; still a great shot stopper, but his positional play is poor. The back-four look like complete strangers, and it’s no coincidence that we have fallen apart defensively since Steve Clarke’s departure.
In midfield, John Obi Mikel and Lampard have performed admirably, but they are not helped by the constantly under-performing Ballack and Deco. Ballack appears to have only one gear, whilst Deco, barring the first two games of the season, has been invisible. These two have been there and done it all; sadly, they don’t seem to want to do a lot more, and the return of Michael Essien can’t come soon enough.
Amazingly, we could have snapped up Rafael Van Der Vaart for less than Deco; that’s not the Chelsea way though. Why buy a talented 24-year-old who is hungry, when you can buy a 30-year-old has-been? Only someone as poor at his job as Peter Kenyon could hail that deal as a “bargain”.
Which brings us to our attack. It’s no exaggeration to say that Tottenham, a team that are in a relegation dogfight, have more attacking options than we do: Pavlyuchenko, Bent, Defoe and Keane? I would swap those four any day of the week for Drogba and Anelka. And let’s not forget, we are relying on Malouda and Salomon Kalou to inject a creative spark into our play; Spurs have Aaron Lennon and Luka Modric. Yes, of course Joe Cole is still a Chelsea player, but as he has been ruled out for the season, he is not much use to us right now.
Malouda is without a doubt one of the worst signings we’ve ever made. He contributes absolutely nothing, can’t beat a full-back, can’t cross, doesn’t score goals, and worst of all, he doesn’t care. The French winger epitomises everything that’s bad about modern-day football.
The manager may have turned up with an impressive CV, but that counts for precious little if you can’t back it up with results, and in that department, Scolari has failed spectacularly. He doesn’t seem to be able to inspire the players either, and quite frankly, doesn’t appear to care too much.
Tactically he doesn’t seem to have a clue. When Liverpool won 1-0 at Stamford Bridge in October, he played Nicholas Anelka as a lone front-man; Anelka barely had a touch, and Jamie Carragher and co will seldom have enjoyed such a comfortable afternoon. In the return fixture at Anfield on Sunday, the selection of Didier Drogba in that role was imperative to Chelsea’s success; but no, Scolari opted for the same selection and tactics as he did in the first game, and ended up with the same outcome – egg on his face.
You really get a sense of how far we have fallen when things are going wrong. When previously we could call upon the likes of Gudjohnsen, Robben, Duff and Crespo to come off the bench and change the game, Scolari now seems to think that Juliano Belletti is the answer to all our problems. True, he doesn’t have the options previous managers have enjoyed, but with all due respect, Belletti is no match-winner.
Scolari is not the only one to blame for our recent problems, however. There always seems to be something going on behind the scenes at Stamford Bridge, and it is astonishing that Frank Arnesen is still in a job. The man entrusted with unearthing future gems has failed to produce anything of note, and to think we paid Tottenham £5m for his capture. It is also a wonder how Peter Kenyon can justify his salary. Our chief negotiator often resembles one of the bungling contestants on The Apprentice trying to pull off a deal. He chases Robinho all summer, yet when Manchester City make a £32m bid, he refuses to go any higher, stating that we won’t be held to ransom. That’s all very admirable Pete, but why change the habit of a lifetime? We’ve always paid over the odds for players, so surely if you’ve been chasing someone for months, an extra few million quid isn’t going to make much difference.
If rumours are to be believed, we were still attempting to sign Robinho up to the close of the January transfer window; now I may be being stupid here, but didn’t we sell Robinho’s current club a player (Wayne Bridge) a matter of weeks ago? Surely some sort of deal could have been agreed which catered for the needs of both parties. Kenyon’s negotiation skills, or lack of them, really make you appreciate Colin Hutchinson, and the sight of him leading the players up to collect their medals in Moscow was as low as it gets.
A major overhaul of the playing squad is needed in the summer if we are to seriously mount a challenge to Manchester United’s dominance in the next few years. Whether or not Scolari is the man to take us forward, only time will tell. Sadly for the Brazilian, time is the one thing he might not have.