After a triumphant victory over Brentford on Sunday, Chelsea will welcome the visit of Sparta Prague to Stamford Bridge in the hopes of continuing forward in the Europa League. Dispatching Brentford in a professional fashion saw the Blues progress in the FA Cup, and now Rafa Benitez’s men will look towards a better performance against a very organized Sparta Prague side. The question that will remain is with a trip to the Etihad Stadium against Manchester City looming on Sunday, will Benitez’s famous rotation policy rear its ugly head.
First thing is that I didn’t watch much Europa League, but I was quite impressed with the organization of Sparta Prague.
I didn’t write a first column simply because I wasn’t fully comfortable writing a breakdown on a side that I’ve seen very little from. However, I’m still not fully comfortable with breaking them down, yet there are a few things that I noticed.
The first thing that I noticed was the defensive organization that Sparta displayed in the first leg. I thought that their defence was quite solid and their midfield worked hard to give us trouble. The interesting thing that I noticed is much like a few of the mid-table Premier League sides, they did a very good job of compressing the space between midfield and defence and making us have to beat two banks of four. If there is a criticism of this Chelsea team, it’s that they do simply have one way of playing and aren’t always able to play a more direct style to overcome the problems caused by teams trying to take away the space from the three players behind the striker. It’s something that needs to be addressed, I think, as the team goes forward, because it’s my belief that you can only get away with just a Plan A when it’s very, very good. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case right now, although the return of Victor Moses should help with a bit more directness in play.
The one player that I thought was impressive and worked to make things happen was Vaclev Kadlec.
I thought that out of the players that Sparta played, Kadlec showed the most potential and also showed the greatest ingenuity in the side. He showed some quality touches on the ball and did a very good job in support of David Lafata. Kadlec is still young and learning, but showed great promise and he and Lafata will have to be watched as they did appear to be one of the few ways that Sparta might score the away goal.
Sparta Prague’s major concern going into the second leg will be worrying about having to score a goal and if they’re capable of doing so.
One of the major problems facing Sparta is that they must come out and attack if they wish to progress. When that happens, they will leave spaces that could possibly be exploited by a Chelsea side that has proven to be potent when they’re on song.
That away goal scored by Oscar showed the creativity that is possible from the Chelsea side, and Sparta will be aware that it could very easily happen again if they come out and try to play. However, if they feel that they can progress, they should take advantage of the potential for a subdued Stamford Bridge atmosphere and the possible nervousness that an early away goal could bring.
How will Rafa’s rotation policy manifest itself?
Benitez has already announced that Frank Lampard and Branislav Ivanovic will be rested for the Sparta match, which will most likely mean that John Terry will partner Gary Cahill at the back and most likely Ramires will partner David Luiz in the center of midfield. We also know that Demba Ba is cup-tied and will not feature in the match. The question is, what other changes might occur?
It’s getting to the point now where Benitez can ill-afford to rest two of Eden Hazard, Oscar, and Juan Mata against sides that sit deep. Without two of those players, the Blues tend to lack that little bit of creativity in the midfield to unlock a team that sits very deep. It’s worrying because it only stands to highlight the lack of depth in the current squad that the manager must rely on two of three of those players if not all three in every match from now to the end of the season.
Fernando Torres gets another shot at leading the line, but I do think he’s not under as much pressure from Ba as we all think.
One interesting thing popped into my head from the match against Brentford: Demba Ba might be the better finisher of him and Torres, but he’s not the better all-around option right now. Watching the match, it was apparent that it was the worst match that I think I’ve seen Ba play since his arrival in January. The big issue for me was his inability to work as a viable passing option at times when it wasn’t designed as a goal-scoring option.
For instance, Brentford’s defence was predicated on giving the center backs all the possession that they wanted, but as soon as the ball crossed the halfway line, their midfield immediately tried to press and squeeze the ball. The solution was to attempt longer passes. However, with Ba trying to run in behind a deep defence, he wasn’t available as a long-passing target and the line was too deep to ping the ball over the top. In short, he essentially took himself out of any build-up play and made it very easy to cut him off because he was always pinned to the two center backs.
The difference between him and Torres in those situations is something that sometimes works well in Torres’ favor. For instance, as Ba works the channels against a deep line, the reliance is on the man behind him to get the second ball, as Mata did for the first, or the midfield to support him. However, with Torres, he generally stays centrally and works to come deep and make space. Say what you will about his confidence in front of goal and his first touch, but generally, he is very good when you ask him to play as a reference point to the attack and to come deeper to create a space for someone to slip in behind, a la Oscar’s one-two goal.
To me, it’s telling that Ba struggled when Brentford sat deeper, but when they started to have to come out a bit, he started doing much better. I couldn’t help but think that Torres’ skills might have suited a bit better in that situation.
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