As a proud member of my university’s wine appreciation society, on Wednesday nights I’m occasionally faced with a very difficult decision. Do I go and consume copious amounts of fermented grapes, paid for by my student union, or do I buy my own wine and stay in to watch the Chelsea game? More often than not, I opt for the latter and occasionally end up regretting it – the 2nd of January this year for example where I could’ve gone and sampled eight glasses of vintage Bordeaux but instead sat through that shockingly poor 0-1 home defeat to QPR. Yesterday evening however, I regard my decision to stay in with a £5 bottle of Chianti and watch our 4-3 win over Sunderland, as one of my better decisions of the calendar year, as we produced, for my money, and Jose’s, our best away performance in the Premier League so far.
The team sheet threw up very few surprises. The privation of the squad in its current state with David Luiz injured and Ashley Cole struggling for form leaves Mourinho with next to no room for rotation as far as the back four are concerned. With Ramires having played so well and Michael Essien having played so shite against Southampton, it was always just a question of whether Frank Lampard or Mikel would come into midfield next to the Brazilian. And with Oscar out and Juan Mata seemingly back in favour for the time being, Willian’s selection over the more mobile Andre Schurrle was perhaps the only surprise in the XI. Gus Poyet naturally stuck with the 4-3-3 that picked up home wins over Newcastle and Manchester City, but left out Seb Larsson and Adam Johnson in favour of Craig Gardner and former Chelsea youngster, Fabio Borini.
It might not have been as bad as Saturday, but once again our start to the game was disappointing, failing to assert ourselves on the opposition before Jozy Altidore opened proceedings with a cool finish after a good turn away from John Terry in the box. As with Rodriguez’s goal however, you sensed it had come way too early for the Black Cats as Chelsea instantly stepped up a gear and found themselves leading the game less than 20 mins later, via two pieces of individual quality from the game’s best player. The first being an inch perfect chipped cross, headed in by Frank Lampard and the second a trademark cut inside and right-footed finish into the bottom corner.
Sunderland equalised quickly after the restart exploiting some shoddy defensive work from a corner kick but were undone once again fifteen minutes later by Chelsea’s current top scorer of the season, relaying the ball neatly off of Frank Lampard and cutting inside once more to finish emphatically what deserved to be the game’s deciding goal. Two late goals by Phil Bardsley – one for each side – ensured the game had an exciting climax, but ultimately our one goal victory was deserved.
Man of the Match:
Eden Hazard’s been a difficult player to fully gauge since his famously drawn-out move from Lille last summer. Personally, his arrival made me more excited than any transfer in the history of the club, and whilst he’s by no means disappointed, having been as consistently good a performer as anyone (bar Mata) since his arrival, he’s also never really lived up to the standard his outrageous form in the French league and obviously talent promised – which is understandable of course given his age and profile, but frustrating nonetheless. I get the feeling that if Hazard is to take the next step up in his development, of which he is so obviously capable, this season, then he needs to capitalise on this current hot run of form and produce that string of match winning performances that have been up until now, too few and far between in his PL career.
Only the most passionate haters of Chelsea FC or vainglorious Sergio-Busquets-worshipping football ‘hipsters’ could deny Hazard’s talent, whilst only a fool would bet against him being the best attacking midfielder in the division in a couple of years time. As long as he keeps working and improving at the current rate, adding to his defensive contributions but also his increasing his confidence to take defenders on and shoot around the area, then I predict we won’t have to wait until the end of the season before the outstanding precocious young talent in our squad is replaced by one of Europe’s elite footballing superstars.
Set Piece Defending:
Meanwhile at the other end of the pitch, it seems we’ve lost our ability to deal with corner kicks and other set piece deliveries with the routine simplicity with which Einstein must have factorised quadratic equations. As Mourinho put it after the match: ‘The game is about (quality and creativity), but it’s also about basic things, and (tonight) we failed in those basic things. ‘The most basic is to defend set-plays. In a game where we should win clearly because of the way we played, we had a risk until the last second.’
We’ve now conceded eight goals in our last five PL games, having gone the previous nine only having let in six. It seems to me that although the individual performances of Gary Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta have hardly been to blame for any poor defensive showings, we could do much worse than to get the “reckless and untrustworthy” David Luiz and the “slow and past it” Ashley Cole back into the side as soon as possible – you know, like they were back when we were defending well.
Overall, round 14 proved to be one of the less unpredictable rounds of season so far, with the top four and Tottenham all picking up victories, with Manchester United’s home loss to Everton the only surprise of the night. The result meant that on his first attempt, Roberto Martinez lead his side to victory at Old Trafford for the first time since 1992, which means he hilariously matches David Moyes’ points tally from the Scot’s 11 year reign at Goodison Park, after just one game. If nothing else the tribulations of Manchester Utd so far this season serve a welcome notice to Chelsea fans that our transition period wasn’t that painful after all – with its simple top-4 finishes and the occasional Champions League trophy.
And so, with West Ham, Southampton and Sunderland all dealt with nicely, we’re 3/5ths of the way through the relatively easy streak of games leading up to our huge match with Arsenal at the Emirates at the end of the month. We still have to play Stoke away and then Crystal Palace at home, whilst Wenger’s men have the significantly harder tasks of a home game against Everton (high off an Old Trafford win) and an away game at Man City, who have blitzed everyone at the Etihad this season. In short, as it stands, our chances of being top by new-year are looking pretty good I’d say. Pretty good indeed.