For the umpteenth time this season Chelsea’s performances ‘hit a new low’ as they lost 0-1 to an AFC Bournemouth team who didn’t need to do an awful lot to end the Blues’ run of three games unbeaten. The result puts a huge amount of extra pressure on the team going in to Wednesday’s final group game in the Champion’s League, which could see the Blues finishing first, second or third in the group, depending on the outcome.
The team selection heading into the game had two major talking points. The first was the return of first-choice goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois who started his first game since late August, having been sidelined with a serious knee injury. Although Begovic could feel a little hard done by (one of the few Chelsea players to have played well this season) most fans would have been forgiven for feeling a little more confident in the back line with the Belgian between the posts. The second topic of discussion was the absence of Diego Costa, or any striker, in the starting line up, with Mourinho electing to stick with the same front four that played away at White Hart Lane last week.
The full starting line up was Courtois, Ivanovic (c), Zouma, Cahill, Baba, Fabregas, Matic, Willian, Oscar, Pedro and Hazard; in the familiar 4-2-3-1 formation albeit with a ‘false 9′. The Bournemouth team lined up in a 4-5-1 formation with Boruc in goal; Smith, Francis (c), Cook and Daniels in defence; Ritchie, Gosling, Surman, Arter and Stanislas in midfield; with King up front.
Chelsea were bright in the opening few minutes, with Pedro, Willian and Hazard linking up well and showing off some clever touches and short, accurate passes. As has been the case since day one of this season, however, Chelsea looked vulnerable on the break. Courtois had to make two excellent saves to keep the scores level early in the first half, both of which came about as a result of Chelsea giving the ball away in the middle and the Bournemouth attack running and passing easily through the fissures in the Blues defence.
Chelsea weathered this early storm though and started to control more and more possession, but without a striker to finish off any moves most of the good build up was suffocated as it advanced into the final third by Bournemouth’s tightly packed defence. Whenever Chelsea did manage to get a shot on target the ball had not been worked quickly enough to give Boruc anything too troublesome to deal with. The only time the Polish international was really stretched was when Pedro nearly curled a sneaking shot around him into the far post just before the break.
Whilst the front four that had played against Tottenham last week had done so with energy and desire, they had of course scored no goals. When playing away at such an in-form team the lack of goals isn’t critical as long as a clean sheet is kept; at home to a team who has never played in the Premier League, however, the impetus should have been with Chelsea to make sure that the ball was hitting the back of the net. This was the reasoning that led to the introduction of Diego Costa – the Spaniard replacing Oscar at half-time.
Chelsea looked a fraction more dangerous after this change, and a few half-chances went begging as crosses flashed across the goal. Still though, Boruc looked comfortable enough with a good number of black and red shirts in front of him.
With half an hour left of the game Chelsea had an appeal for a penalty turned down – the ball clearly striking Simon Francis’ arm as Costa tried to work the ball into the box. Whilst the claims were vociferously made, there was no clear intent by Francis to play the ball with his arm and Chelsea have been denied penalties for much worse this season.
What was clear about Chelsea’s play was that, despite going three games unbeaten, a clear lack of confidence had nowhere near dissipated. It seemed that whenever a first-time shot was possible a touch-too-many was taken, and whenever there was time to take a touch and set the ball it was struck first-time and without effect.
On the 80th minute Glen Murray was substituted in place of Josh King who had worked hard to keep busy throughout the game. None of the Chelsea players seemed to notice though that the former Palace striker had entered the field, as just a minute later he crept in unmarked to head Bournemouth into the lead following a corner that wasn’t dealt with properly. Although the goal was scored from a marginally offside position, the uncertainty and capitulation was a perfect summation of Chelsea’s season so far.
The collapse of the team’s fragile mindset was so obvious that there may as well have been a big sign saying ‘what are we supposed to do?’ plastered across the big screens.
Loic Remy and Bertrand Traore were brought on to try and salvage a point from yet another toothless display but to no avail. Just as they had done the entire game, Bournemouth defended in numbers and let Chelsea have the ball in ineffective areas, and so they comfortably held on for the win without being particularly dynamic.
It was a result that has hacked a giant block off of the fans’ backing of Mourinho – a stone that has been slowly chipped away at this season with many Chelsea fans now recognising that a top-four finish is unlikely and seriously questioning whether the Special One can coax any sort of positivity and motivation out of the team this season.
Chelsea now look ahead to Wednesday and a Champion’s League game that looks set to define the season.