If, like me, you take a practical view of the whole Christmas thing – that it’s basically a chance to take a few days off work and drink a little more than usual – then you probably share my slightly weary attitude to the whole thing. In part, I think, this stems from Chelsea’s tradition of poor football over the Yuletide period. Don’t engage with anything on an emotional level in December: that’s my advice. If you do, you may find your Boxing Day spoilt when Charlton put 4 past you.
Of late, however, Chelsea have been suspiciously impregnable during the season of shopping. Maximum points from our last two festive campaigns has had us in our fluffy slippers and stretched out before a roaring fire, halls deck’d and sleigh-bells ringing, while our league rivals toil in their driveways trying to clear the snow. God rest ye, merry centre forwards.
Well, not last time. Cruising to a narrow but comfortable home win against Reading, and a careless own goal from Essien via Cole – who really should have been aware that he had space and time to deal with the cross – surrendered two points only a week after we clawed three back. We’re heading in the right direction, but far slower than José would like.
The catalyst for our woes is the first real injury crisis Chelsea have sustained under this manager. Terry, Cech, Robben and Cole are all missing, leaving us short of creativity up front and lacking cohesion in defence. Carvalho has done a marvellous job of marshalling a makeshift backline in which Bouhlarouz, Essien, Cole, Bridge, Ferreira and Geremi have all played a part at one time or another. Gallas’ absence glares. Huth’s sale, in the light of some of the Cannibal’s showings recently, might yet give us problems. I found myself looking for the assured defender that shackled the world’s best player so effectively when Barca came to the Bridge. Yes, Ronaldinho was off the pace that night, but the Dutchman played his share in that night’s fantastic result.
Few will sympathise with Chelsea’s woes. Ballack and Shevchenko are failing to impose themselves – a fact that will have Alex Ferguson grinning into his New Year Merlot. An intentionally light squad, in terms of numbers, was the manager’s choice in his attempt to keep motivation high. With 4 key injuries, the obvious drawbacks have been highlighted. The club is aiming to put in a realistic challenge on 4 fronts. If the problems at the back continue, don’t be surprised to see the club look around in the transfer market. And herein lies yet another problem. When February rolls around and we get to grips with Porto, we might well triumph over two legs without Terry. Porto are to be taken seriously, but there are far tougher obstacles to overcome. But if we make the quarter-finals, a fit Terry and Cech would seem to be a minimum requirement for further progress.
Both Everton and Reading took headed goals against us. It doesn’t take a tactical genius – or even a tactical cretin – to realise that the return of a truly commanding keeper is going to narrow that avenue. Add the healthy captain – one of football’s great defensive headers of the ball – and our last 3 games should have been considerably more comfortable.
Yes, I know what you’re thinking: it’s taken me 6 paragraphs to get to the conclusion that we need Terry back. But what his return could also do is remove a certain element of entertainment from Chelsea’s play. Call me a heretic, but the frenetic chasing of the Everton and Wigan games reminded me, however vaguely, of an older Chelsea. A team that left you tearing your hair out on a weekly basis, and who went down to Sunderland or Charlton. A team who took years off my life. Do I prefer that feeling? I nearly did a lap of my seat when Drogba finished off Everton. I screamed Robben’s name for the first time this season against Wigan. For some reason, the shades of uncertain, cantankerous, occasionally glorious Chelsea that I’ve seen lately have energised me as well as frustrated me.
I like to end this by saying that I do, despite any hints I’ve made to the contrary, want my Chelsea back. José’s Chelsea. I like the feeling, one up with 15 minutes to play, that we’ve got this won. I want my team to impose their will on the opposition, to soak up their attacking efforts with contempt and teach them a lesson in fluency on the counter. Above all, I want my captain and keeper back.
But, although the results haven’t been perfect, I won’t say the break hasn’t been fun.