If only Samuel Eto’o hadn’t injured himself in Switzerland.
No sooner had the press begun filing: Chelsea are struggling in Ba-Argh! Bang, went Eto’o’s groin, as the prowler supreme went in search of another victim to his unique brand of pick-pocketing.
Boy, how the Cameroonian would have been licking his lips at the prospect of Southampton – and, particularly, Polish goalkeeper Artur Boruc, whose nonchalance in needlessly giving up a goal at Emirates Stadium last weekend was reckless in the extreme – rolling into town this Sunday.
Just as Eto’o had lurked, coiled then sprung at both Cardiff City’s David Marshall and Timo Hildebrand, in Schalke 04’s goal, in recent weeks to steal the advantage at Stamford Bridge as his side had toiled, the occasion seemed set for the veteran forward to create a fresh genre of hat-trick in a season that looks like lurching from the sublime to the ridiculous on a weekly basis in SW6.
Following on from a soap opera that started so brightly with a bewitching of Hull City on a sunny afternoon in August, before stuttering somewhat as a UEFA Super Cup shootout defeat led to three successive losses entering September, the Blues appeared to have turned a corner during a run of nine games unbeaten in all competitions, including six wins from six in October. Then, the eleventh month arrived.
Whether the kaleidoscope of cultures in the Chelsea dressing room are simply spooked by this nation’s take on Halloween is unclear; what is certain is that these 30 days present problems that, no matter what the fixture computer compiles, tend to expose the flaws in any system; good and bad, young and old, well-honed and Scolari-led.
As fans stroll the Fulham Road, awkwardly inch past the Chelsea Brass Band and pile into their seats as Sunday skies start to darken, they will hang their hopes on the possibility that there is no better manager than Jose Mourinho to give grappling with this troubling paradigm a go. During his first spell in charge, the Portuguese oversaw three near-perfect Novembers, dropping points on just three occasions, two of which were at Old Trafford against their closest challengers.
With nine December matches to negotiate, though, Mourinho must surely make the changes to which he referred after the appalling display against Basel and, foremost, turn to Juan Mata in an attempt to unlock the division’s meanest defence.
Southampton pose a threat at both ends, having conceded seven goals in their 12 league games so far and accounted for Liverpool at Anfield earlier this term by way of a set-piece header, as well as earning a deserved draw away to Champions Manchester United thanks to the same source providing a tap-in late in the day last month.
That 89th minute equaliser was turned in by Adam Lallana, who has been sufficiently effective to warrant recognition from England boss Roy Hodgson along with team-mates Rickie Lambert and Jay Rodriguez and the attacking trio’s front-foot philosophy will undoubtedly test a leaky Chelsea back-line accused of sleeping by their gaffer days ago in the wake of a route one winner for the hosts at St.Jakob-Park.
With Mourinho more than hinting at wholesale changes ahead of this 3rd versus 5th clash, Ashley Cole would seem the sensible selection at left-back, although Cesar Azpilicueta, performing on his less-favoured flank, was one of few (arguably together with Petr Cech and Willian) to emerge with any credit whatsoever from the Swiss surrender. David Luiz remains sidelined with a knee complaint so John Terry and Gary Cahill will likely continue in central defence. Branislav Ivanovic, Tuesday’s chief snoozing culprit, could make way to accommodate Cole and the in-form Azpilicueta.
As always, the major decisions affect further up the field. An engine room of Jon Mikel Obi, Ramires and Frank Lampard feels like a defining analogy for the word ‘ponderous’ and ought to be altered in the event the Saints ease off enough at some stage to allow us up into second gear. Starting Oscar or even Kevin De Bruyne in a deeper role would be intriguing but would mark a radical switch in approach from the Special One and is highly unlikely at such a crucial juncture. Easing one of the three ditherers onto the bench is perhaps his best option.
Up front, Fernando Torres will in all probability be handed prowling duties, with two or (please, for the love of God) three from Mata, Oscar, Willian, Andre Schϋrrle and a partially rested Eden Hazard to link with the Spaniard between the lines.
After the temerity of Tuesday, the main thing in everyone’s minds this weekend will be the chances created column. One feels they could do worse than putting the keeper under pressure from the off. Who knows? Maybe we’ll even manage to get a shot away.