If you were to sit down and outline all of the reasons why Chelsea may or may not win the Premier League this season, I think you’d struggle to come up with many viable causes for optimism or concern that weren’t made evident in Saturday’s defeat of Fulham. Essentially, the game was little more than your typical ‘top v bottom’ clash, with the disparity in quality mainly responsible for the result, as opposed to any tactical decisions or discrepancies in desire, per se. The result was a routine one ultimately, against a side all but incapable of troubling us (if we’re being honest) but it also aptly highlighted I thought, all of the flaws which I still predict will see us end up falling just short.
The particularly slow and lethargic start we made to the game could be partly accredited I suppose, to the return flight from Turkey made less than 72 hours previously, but it was also fairly representative of how frustratingly long it’s taken us recently, to generate some rhythmic intensity to our forward play. In our last nine league games, we’ve failed to score in the first half on six occasions. And it’s this languidness in the beginning of matches that is leaving far too many games open for too long; sooner or later you feel it’s going to catch us out and cost us some important points.
Another issue made plain against the Cottagers, especially in the first half, was that for all the physicality and industriousness of our midfield, it can often yield an alarming lack of guile. None of Ramires, Matic or Oscar are in particularly good form with respect to their passing games at the moment, which consequently is leaving us looking flat and toothless against good defences. And this, of course, is an issue compounded by our most obvious and talked about problem – the lack of consistent and threatening goal scorer. Torres’ fluffing of an early chance on Saturday after catching out Maarten Stekelenburg just made that entire passage of play embarrassing for all involved. And then his missed header from two yards in the second half rounded up a pretty typical performance from a Chelsea CF this season. The fact we are still occasionally conceding goals as soft as Johnny Heitinga’s is another worry – with all of our excellent defensive displays this year threatening to count for nothing if we continue to throw away victories and points, failing to deal with simple crosses into the box, as against West Brom and Galatasaray.
However, there were also several positives aspects to our display this weekend, that are equally as important to consider when it comes to forming an opinion on our title-winning prospects. Firstly, aside from the sloppy goal conceded, the performance of the back five was solid once again. It can hardly be disputed that we currently have the best centre half partnership and goalkeeper in the league; whilst Azpilicueta and Ivanovic are both also playing well, in their efficient yet unspectacular way. It should go without saying, that the continuation of this level of contribution from the back four until the end of the season is crucial. Collectively, for months now, they’ve more than compensated for weaknesses in other areas and they’re owed huge amounts of credit.
Other players other than the back four are owed credit for our defensive form this year however. Once again, as I think we showed against Fulham, the level of discipline and humility shown by this group of players I think is outstanding – the work rate of players (like Matic, Oscar, Willian, Schurrle and Hazard) who’s talent could so easily and reasonably demand more creative freedom, is incredible to see and is the reason why, compared to previous years, we’ve managed to produce such consistently good results, even during the more difficult and sluggish games, like Saturday’s threatened to be in the first half.
Without question though, the greatest source of optimism we have for becoming league champions this May, is the little Belgian who was undoubtedly the man of the match yet again on Saturday, despite not being the one to have scored a hat-trick! In the second half this weekend Hazard was as joyous to watch as ever, embarrassing Fulham at times with his wonderfully imaginative passing and dribbling. What makes him such an asset for Chelsea isn’t any particular one of his technical attributes, however. Rather it’s the ability he has to take a game, infested with mediocrity, by the scruff of the neck and lift his side out of the ordinary – to change the dynamic and outlook of game in a heartbeat through a moment unelaborated brilliance. I think it’s safe to say now, not only is Hazard Chelsea’s best player, but he’s the only player capable of inspiring a league title win from this campaign. And whilst that is a big responsibility to place on one player (particularly such a young player) it’s a responsibility under which he is thriving.
I’ve said before, I think what will decide the title race this year is how Manchester City cope with their tough run of fixtures towards the end of March, where they go away to Man Utd, Arsenal and Liverpool in the space of four games. If they can go through that period picking up nine or ten points then I think the league will be there’s and rightly so. If they struggle however, and lose points in consecutive games, then we have to be in position to make them pay – that should be our responsibility. And you can bet if City do lose points at Old Trafford, with trips to the Emirates and Anfield to come, then Mourinho will smell blood and he’ll rally the troops and pile the pressure on City, leaving no one unaware how vital it is they win their next games.
For now though we just need to stay in their slipstream and continue picking up points, winning as ugly as necessary to make sure we’re in a position to pounce, come the end of March. Next Saturday’s game against Tottenham stands out as one of only three of ten, particularly tough matches left in our domestic season, the others being at home to Arsenal and away to Liverpool. Though, of course it’s never easy against Spurs, with the extent of Tim Sherwood’s inexperience finally beginning to show, this has to be seen as a great opportunity to pick up another big home win and move nine points clear of Man City before they play again.
‘Favourites’ for the league, is still a moniker I’m hesitant to assign ourselves. The possibility of being champions is becoming more feasible however, with every single passing week.