Thursday night, Chelsea will welcome Steaua Bucharest to Stamford Bridge for the second leg of their Europa League tie. A 1-0 win for the Romanian side has the Blues on the brink of elimination from yet another trophy to be won. However, not all is as gloomy as it looked a week ago after such a dire performance away that even this writer (and probably many others) wanted two hours of their lives back.
The resurgence shown against Manchester United on Sunday in the FA Cup showed a level of fight back and commitment from the side that wasn’t present just three days earlier. Moreover, the fight back was initiated by what amounted to a new spine of players, as by that point, Frank Lampard had been withdrawn and John Terry did not play. Also, credit must go to Rafa Benitez for his substitutions, though one could argue as to why he didn’t set the team out that way to start. Regardless of his reasons, he saw what needed to be changed and affected the game in a positive way, and there’s nothing more that you can ask your manager to do.
Attention now turns back to the Europa League and a vital second leg that could very well shape how the remainder of the season goes. Win, and we continue on a chance at European glory, albeit with some massive fixture congestions ahead where the team may find that it has to play 4 matches in 10 days at some point. Lose, and we look back at the dying embers of a season that could have seen the squad win an amazing six trophies, but are in the running realistically for just one. How will it shake out? Let’s see if we can make some suggestions.

First thing: Steaua in the first leg were able to take advantage of the one weakness in the side that’s plagued us for a few years: the pressing game.
The first thing that I think unsettled the side was the high-pressure game that Steaua set out to play in that first leg. The one weakness that Chelsea teams have had in recent memory has been the fact that if you press hard in the midfield and clog the space, you can essentially suck wide players inside and play down the flanks. That’s basically what Steaua did. Whenever either of John Mikel Obi or Lampard collected the ball, immediately a Bucharest player was on them to harry them off the ball.
The knock-effect is that by playing Yossi Benayoun and Oscar with Eden Hazard, you’re effectively going to have to bring one or both of your wide players inside to help maintain possession. That works in some doses, but the problem then became that the flanks are wide open for attack, and Steaua began to find lots of joy down our left behind Benayoun and attacking Branislav Ivanovic, while taking advantage of the fact that Ryan Bertrand isn’t the greatest of defenders covering the far post when the center backs moved. Hence the chances created from crosses coming in from wide areas and the eventual penalty conceded.

Hazard and Ivanovic against Reading
Hazard and Ivanovic against Reading

As a right back, Branislav Ivanovic is serviceable until he’s forced to defend a flank alone.
In the first leg, the Blues made Steaua’s left back Iasmin Latovlevici look like the second coming of Roberto Carlos. Essentially, he single-handedly caused all sorts of issues with overlapping runs down the left, and with the midfielders unable to keep possession, caused all sorts of havoc with his crosses into the area.
However, this is not necessarily because he’s the next great, unsung talent, but I think it’s more down to the setup with Ivanovic at right back. Some fault must lie in Benayoun’s inability to provide a decent shield, but we’ve seen this tactic used before against Ivanovic to great effect by United in the past and many other teams. When you get Ivanovic forward, because he’s a center back by trade, he’s not necessarily the swiftest in retreating back quickly. Also, his one-on-one defending also leaves a bit to be desired, but in part, again, he’s a center back and doesn’t really possess that skill set.
I don’t expect what happened on the right flank to happen again in the second leg because I do believe that Cesar Azpilicueta will start. Though Azpilicueta isn’t quite the accomplished sweeping defender, he’s a much more natural right-sided player, and he’s a better option with his delivery and ability going forward. For instance, against United, in the past, Patrice Evra and Shinji Kagawa would be menacing enough to create space between the right-sided attacker and Ivanovic. However, with Azpilicueta, that space was much smaller because he was able to get by Kagawa when needed while also covering back. I expect he starts against Steaua.

This goes without saying, but it’s becoming harder and harder to justify not playing Oscar, Hazard, and Juan Mata despite the defensive questions just because of the gulf in class.
I think you’ve started to see the evolution of how this trio will work and how they complement each other now. Oscar has the vision and the subtlety of touch on the ball and the ability to find space. Hazard is supremely gifted technically, keeps the ball under pressure, and isn’t afraid to run at the defence. Mata has the same vision of Oscar, but the inherent Spanish ability to use his own movement to create chances and space for others.
As we saw in the second half against United, they’re finally getting to a point where the three of them seamlessly integrate with one another without a single one looking out of place. Even when they’re not on song, they still possess a touch of class and guile that’s usually lacking otherwise.
And that’s where we come to this point. The drop off from that trio to Victor Moses and Yossi Benayoun is becoming increasingly noticeable to the point that when one or two of the three starts on the bench, the team seems to lack that touch of fluidity and guile to break down teams. Against Bucharest and United, Benayoun and Moses’ inability to play with that same level of cleverness seemed to hinder the team, especially when coupled with the midfield’s inability to distribute from deep.

John Obi Mikel in action against Manchester City
John Obi Mikel in action against Manchester City

Why does Rafa Benitez not rate John Mikel Obi?
I better not be able to say that entirely now after his performances in his last two matches, but there are rumblings that Benitez does not believe Mikel is good enough. To me, that’s a load of phooey. In Bucharest, I thought he was the best player on the pitch and against United, his introduction steadied the rudder in a way that neither Lampard nor Ramires were able to.
I’ve always thought most supporters vastly underrated Mikel in that he doesn’t do anything special. For me, his job is simple: keep the ball, move it smartly, move into space to be available for a pass, and repeat. To me, in the last two matches, he’s done just that. In the double pivot, you do appreciate great passers like Xabi Alonso who can sit deep and dictate with long diagonals that open up space. In my opinion, more important is the deeper midfielder who keeps the possession ticking, keeps the passes simple, but as soon as he passes, he drops into spaces between players to make himself available as a release valve.
If you watch back the United match and follow Mikel, even though there were a couple ill-advised giveaways, he largely did just what I mentioned above. He collected a pass, he moved it along to another player, and then he dropped off into space to make himself available to reset the possession. It’s something that Claude Makelele was the master at, and while I don’t think he’s on that level yet, I think he’s vitally important.

Lampard scores against Arsenal
Lampard scores against Arsenal

Lastly, could we finally be seeing why the board has been reluctant to sign Frank Lampard?
Every year, it seems, I find something to nitpick about Lampard, and every year, he makes me look like an idiot. I hope he makes me look like an idiot again, but I’m afraid that this time, I may be right.
I will preface this by saying that I’m not anti-Lampard. He’s a legend. He’s done great things for the club. However, football always has been a bit of a younger man’s game and regardless of how fit you may be in your mid-30s, Father Time will have his say.
As I said, this is not about his fitness levels as he ages. It’s more about his ability to recover those fitness and sharpness levels quickly after each match. Everyone can attest to this. All you have to do is run off to the local pub and try indulge in the way you did when you were in your 20s, then wake up the next morning and see how you feel. Chances are that you’ll feel like death and it’ll take you a day to recover.
Now imagine that you’re a footballer and you’re running 10 kilometres every three days and trying to recover the next day to play two days later. See the point? It’s not going to get any better.
Right now, I think the best thing would be to send him off on a nice little holiday if he doesn’t get called up for England because I think he needs it. Over the last few matches, he’s started to resemble the ageing boxer whose mind is telling him what he needs to do to win the fight, but his body is just not responding.
I don’t think this run of fixtures has done him any good, and if Mikel should be coming back into favor and Terry fit to play more at center half, it might do Lampard some good to just play once a week. Otherwise, for me, it’s becoming somewhat painful to watch.