For the first time in the Premier League era Chelsea travel to a different country to play a league fixture, heading west to south Wales to take on Swansea City. Much has been made of the Welsh side’s excellent home record this season and rightly so; they have only lost once at the Liberty Stadium, to champions Manchester United, and boast the accolade of having conceded the fewest goals on their own turf, a measly six. Considering Chelsea’s last three games have produced only two goals, both in favour of the Blues and including a very harsh penalty, it seems unlikely those in blue venturing down the M4 will be rewarded with a feast of goals. Indeed just a performance with a bit more energy and quality than Saturday’s dire effort at Loftus Road will suffice.
Issues off the pitch will once again cloud tomorrow’s fixture. A little over an hour after the final whistle will mark Fernando Torres’s first year at Stamford Bridge. The £50 million spent in the very last hour of the 2011 January transfer window has yielded a return of five goals from the Spaniard which, if my maths is correct, have come at a price of £10 million a hit. But hey, while we’re here, let’s celebrate each and every one of them again – first up, the wonderful turn and shot in the pouring rain in a 3-0 home win against West Ham (remember them?) in April. Then came the delightful chipped finish past David de Gea in our 1-3 reverse at Old Trafford in September; sadly this goal was blighted by a miss later in the game of quite epic proportions. The following Saturday marked the height of Torres’s Chelsea career when he notched for the second successive game, against tomorrow’s opponents Swansea, with a neat finish. This zenith was also short-lived, however, as he saw red barely ten minutes later for a reckless lunge on Mark Gower. Two more goals followed in October in a 5-0 rout against Belgian no-hopers Genk. And there we have them, all five – West Ham, Manchester United, Swansea City and Genk, the victims of Torres’s quality. It is now sixteen games in the blue of Chelsea since he last scored in a time of just under fifteen hours. Interestingly, this run of impotence in front of goal is now longer than the one he endured having signed for the club in January.
He has, of course, been the victim of some bad luck – the miss at Old Trafford stands out, especially following such a piece of brilliant skill to get himself in front of the goal with nobody to beat, as do seemingly endless strikes against the woodwork. That the team have also found it so hard to play to his strengths hasn’t helped, nor have the occasional flashes of brilliance from Didier Drogba which have made it impossible for first Carlo Ancelotti, and now Andre Villas-Boas, to appoint Torres as the club’s main striker and figurehead up front. Only with Drogba in Africa can Torres feel like the position is his. His work-rate has been mostly faultless and he has produced some performances of the very highest quality which haven’t been rewarded, but unless something changes, and fast, one fears for the future of the fourth most expensive player in the history of the game.
Elsewhere in the all-too-predictable soap opera that defines Abramovich-led Chelsea, Wednesday morning sees club captain John Terry in court facing charges of racial abuse. Returning to the scene of the alleged crime on Saturday Terry performed excellently against a side even blunter going forward than our own. Whether he will be able to put his neck on the line in typically dramatic fashion in a West London courtroom remains to be seen. It is ten years to the month since JT was last in court and all those in blue will be hoping that the (eventual) verdict is the same as the one given in January 2002.
Anyway, back to matters on the pitch. With Player of the Season-contender Ramires ruled out for three to four works with a knee injury sustained at Loftus Road a place in Chelsea’s midfield three opens up, with Frank Lampard (who has around a 50% chance of returning for this game), Michael Essien and Oriol Romeu all vying for a place in the starting eleven. Chelsea’s front three is unlikely to change, not because of their sparkling form but simply because there is nobody to replace them, and it would be churlish to drop David Luiz now he’s hit a run of very good form. What the Blues have lacked in creativity in recent weeks they have made up for in defensive solidarity and Luiz deserves much credit for the four consecutive clean sheets Chelsea have kept.
Swansea’s game is built around keeping possession in the middle third then inviting wingers Nathan Dyer and Scott Sinclair to wreak havoc closer to the goal where predatory forward Danny Graham continues to impress. Leon Britton has won the hearts and minds of football pundits and journalists up and down the country with his remarkable ball possession statistics (better than Xavi, in case you hadn’t heard), although the contrarian in me would point out that the Welsh wizard has yet to score a goal or record an assist this campaign. Instead, it is left to Mark Gower to provide the attacking ingenuity to unlock defences – he has six assists to his name. The defence hasn’t changed from the one that won promotion through the play-offs last season and is all the better for it, whilst new custodian Michel Vorm has proven a revelation in the Swans’ goal. Dorus de Who?
Ex-Blue Scott Sinclair will be excited to show his former employers that they were foolish to let him go, but in truth he has endeared himself to Chelsea fans more so in recent weeks, with crucial goals against Tottenham and Arsenal, than he ever did whilst playing at Stamford Bridge. That victory against Arsenal in their last outing at the Liberty Stadium was impressive, but defensive flaws were evident too – a more clinical Arsenal, perhaps like the one we witnessed at Stamford Bridge in October, might well have scored four or five. This will hopefully give the visitors some confidence as they seek to end a dry spell in front of goal. Indeed the Swans come into this game on the back of two defeats, at Sunderland and Bolton, whilst Chelsea’s last five games point to four wins and a draw, and they are unbeaten on the road since October. Whether this record remains intact as they return from foreign lands remains to be seen, but perhaps it will be Fernando who brings some symmetry to proceedings with a winning goal against the team he last scored against in the league exactly a year to the day since he signed for the club? Ok, perhaps not, but forgive me for dreaming.