New Year, and a continuation of a season which had so far flattered to deceive. At times we looked unstoppable, yet there were still occasions where we never even got started in games. The latter had been happening more often than the former as 2008 drew to a close and pressure was increasing on manager Luis Felipe Scolari and some underperforming members of his Chelsea squad. Deco’s bright start had fizzled out a long time ago while Didier Drogba was either injured, unfit, or unfavoured by the Brazilian boss. Florent Malouda was getting it in the neck from large sections of the Chelsea support while Michael Essien had been missing since September through serious injury.
Although transfer activity was supposed to be limited in January, Scolari did bring in winger Ricardo Quaresma (trust me, he did actually arrive at the club and play a few games) while the month also saw defender Michael Mancienne return from a loan spell at Wolves. Wayne Bridge left the club despite signing a new four-year deal in the summer, with the left-back joining Manchester City for around £10m. The full-back acquired cult status at the club for a winning goal against Arsenal in a Champions League quarter-final tie, and was a thoroughly nice guy to boot. His departure would leave Chelsea with just one recognised left-back in the squad, with Ashley Cole firmly cementing the place as his own.
But it wasn’t personnel problems which were troubling Scolari at the beginning of January. An FA Cup third round tie against League One Southend resulted in red faces all round for the Blues. Although Salomon Kalou opened the scoring at Stamford Bridge, a host of chances were missed following the goal and Chelsea’s profligacy was punished by a last-minute equaliser from Southend’s Peter Clarke, who exposed the Blues frailties at defending set-pieces by heading home a long throw. It is a game Chelsea should have comfortably won, but the fact that the Blues could only labour to a draw was unfortunately reminiscent of a few games under Scolari earlier in the season.
Worse was to come in January however as Chelsea travelled to fellow title challengers Manchester United, and left as a humiliated outfit, a mere shadow of their former selves. Nemanja Vidic opened the scoring, Wayne Rooney added a second in the second half, and Dimitar Berbatov poured salt into the wounds with a late third. A 3-0 trouncing at Old Trafford. Chelsea were poor on the day and this was perhaps the first game when it seemed entirely likely that Scolari’s time was running out. Despite his desperate claim that the title race was not yet over, his period as manager was coming to an end.
A token 4-1 win against Southend in the FA Cup third round replay helped the Blues bounce back, but Joe Cole ruptured a knee joint in the game and was ruled out for the rest of the season.
After going a goal down against Southend, Chelsea showed resilience and fight to overturn the deficit and win. A similar feat was achieved in the next league game at home to Stoke, but that only tells half the story.
Chelsea had pushed for a goal in the first-half but were met by Stoke’s strong resistance which began to frustrate the home side and the watching fans. The second-half began in the same vein, but Chelsea were punished by a opportunist Stoke goal as Rory Delap scored on a rare counter-attack on the hour mark.
A shocked Chelsea attempted to galvanise and push on again, but time began to run out. Franco di Santo, Juliano Belletti and Miroslav Stoch were thrown on to stretch the Stoke defence. It worked.
Belletti headed in on 88 minutes before a last-gasp Frank Lampard goal saved Chelsea’s blushes and perhaps Scolari’s job.
Thankfully, after that drama, routine wins followed over Ipswich Town in the FA Cup fourth round and Middlesbrough in the league which put us into second-place.
Carlo Cudicini followed Wayne Bridge out of the exit door to join Tottenham after playing second-fiddle to Petr Cech in the last few years. Cudicini’s departure marked the end of an era with the affable Italian a popular figure at the club.
So as we reflect on January, it’s difficult to analyse the true consequences of the month. Chelsea were still challenging in the league, the FA Cup, and the Champions League – set to start up again soon – but something wasn’t right. Fans from other clubs could sneer at us and claim we were ungrateful, but we knew something was up. This wasn’t how Chelsea played, this wasn’t what Chelsea were.
Something had to give. In February, something did.