London – There are few things worse in sport than under-achievement. This is currently Chelsea’s curse.
Failure is one thing; even the greats don’t get it right every time. Failing because you don’t have a plan, a structure or an idea of how to move forward is quite another.
On Sunday at Old Trafford, we saw the worst and the best of Chelsea.
In the first half, as they conceded a two-goal lead to Manchester United, Chelsea looked like a team marking time until the end of the season. Behind the goal in the East Stand, their supporters didn’t really seem that surprised.
An hour later, however, and Chelsea were looking rather rampant and for half an hour played the best football of the game. With the Belgian Eden Hazard on as a substitute and playing beautifully and the Spaniard Juan Mata proving equally influential, Rafael Benitez’s team began to ask questions that United could not answer.
Ultimately, only the Dubbin on the end of David de Gea’s right boot prevented Mata scoring the injury-time goal that would have completed an admirable and thoroughly deserved comeback. Chelsea were that close to an FA Cup semi-final.
United manager Sir Alex Ferguson spoke afterwards of his team’s tiredness in the wake of their Champions League defeat to Real Madrid.
“It had clearly taken it out of them,” said Ferguson.
This, however, was not the reason. Chelsea, after all, had played in Romania in the Europa League on Thursday – two days after United – and seemed full of running.
Quite simply, Chelsea were the better team as this game wore on and it is this that makes their current predicament in the Barclays Premier League so painful to watch.
The English league has suffered this season from a lack of competition at the top end. Leaders United will not care but those who have the good of the domestic scene at heart will hope that Chelsea re-emerge to play to their potential next season.
Certainly, they have some terrific attacking players. Hazard, Mata and the Brazilians Oscar and Ramires deserve to play in a team not held back by the uncertainty and discord that seems to be a part of daily life at Stamford Bridge.
Even the best players need to play in a structure, they need the security of continuity. Take that away from them and their performances will suffer.
In his programme notes on Sunday, United manager Ferguson touched on the theme when he wrote: “We always believe in the value of stability and continuity and believe it is the foundation of our success.
“Chelsea, of course, fly in the face of that theory under owner Roman Abramovich.
“They have had seven managers in the last 10 years and perhaps we are still counting! It reflects well on the quality of their players that they have been able to maintain such a high level of success.”
United, of course, have benefited as much as anybody from the erratic nature of Abramovich’s ownership in west London. Who knows how many more league titles Chelsea would have won, for example, had the Russian not hustled Jose Mourinho out of the door in 2007? It has been the faltering challenge from places like Chelsea, Arsenal and, of course, Liverpool that has contributed to United’s ongoing dominance.
What will encourage any prospective replacement for Benitez is that the quality in the Chelsea squad remains high. Were a coach such as Mourinho himself, for example, to return in the summer then it is not hard to imagine them reappearing on United’s shoulder very quickly indeed.
On Sunday they gifted United two goals in the first 11 minutes. After that, though, Chelsea neutered United’s attacking threat pretty effectively.
So quiet, in fact, were Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie that questions will be asked of their partnership again today.
They shouldn’t be, though. Rooney was perhaps not at his best on Sunday but, as always, his efforts were unstinting. He scored his 15th goal of his season and came close to another when Petr Cech saved his shot from 12 yards later in the first half.
Rooney will have to suffer a little scrutiny over the coming days and weeks, given all that happened last week. That will not faze him, though. The 27-year-old is nothing if not driven and the uncertainty that continues to hang over his future at United is unlikely to detract from his efforts.
Rooney, of course, is not far from his fifth Premier League medal. Chelsea’s players would certainly swap. They remain in the FA Cup but are so far short of where they really should be that it really is rather sad. This is what bad management does to a club. – Daily Mail