Whilst it’s been lost on no one how enthralling and tense the final few game weeks of the Premier League season are set up to be, based on the evidence of the past month or so, a reasonable and informed explanation of why the competition remains so close is surprisingly hard to come by. In other words, whilst nobody struggles to provide reasons why Liverpool or Manchester City could, or even should be champions, with their ambitious and proactive styles of play having been endlessly lauded for months, along with the form of their wonderfully entertaining attacking talent. Even the clubs’ most decided detractors couldn’t deny how brilliant to watch the likes of Luis Suarez and David Silva have been throughout the run-in; likewise how impressive Daniel Sturridge, Alvaro Negredo and Yaya Toure’s goal scoring records have been throughout certain periods. Both managers have also been praised profusely, for their work in creating such entertaining attacking sides.
Yet when conversation turns to why Chelsea could, or should win the league however, whether it’s on a fan forum or a podcast or on a punditry panel, the level of conviction in people’s speech (or prose) suddenly begins to taper. “Err… well, they defend pretty well… most of the time and erm… Eden Hazard has been good in some games and… errm… Mourinho’s won a lot of things hasn’t he?”
This was a reality effectively illustrated last Sunday after Liverpool managed to defeat City in what was the most riveting league game of the season, and a contest replete with attacking ambition and moments of inspiring individual creativity. Chelsea’s match with Swansea City later that day, however, didn’t quite manage to captivate or beguile to the same degree. Against an out-of-form, physically exhausted, relegation threatened, currently directionless, 10 man Swansea City side, we were, it has to be said, bloody awful. To their credit, the Swans defended well for long periods but there were also moments where our approach play was hilariously bad – with our only eventual goal dependant on a fortunate deflection coupled with a goalkeeping error.
Mourinho was reportedly too angry after the game to even speak to his players, let alone the press and understandably so. I think it’s unlikely any Atletico Madrid fan watching the game will have been left particularly concerned. The game was though, almost perfectly emblematic of why Chelsea are still such big players in this title race and also why, after a month of some very poor results, the league is once again, ‘in our hands’. It is often rather mawkishly said that great teams (or Champions) find a way to win even when they aren’t playing well. Plenty of Premier League sides are capable of this; I think however, that we might just be the only team in the division capable of winning a game when we play absolutely terribly.
Italian football legend Andrea Pirlo is alleged to have revealed this week that if he could join any English side, it would be Chelsea, due to their uncompromising ‘results over style’ philosophy. It’s surely more than just adherence to a particular philosophy that makes Chelsea so efficient however. Whatever it is that allows us, in spite all of our shortcomings, to win a game when we need to, is in my opinion equally as inspiring as Liverpool and Man City’s attacking talent. The fact Brendan Rogers’ team will only need to draw in their match against us at (as it stands), coupled with our Champions League fixtures to think about, means Liverpool are still probably title favourites at the moment. I feel comfort in the knowledge though that even if we can’t win at Anfield next Sunday, as we surely must, then we’ll still make damn sure that they earn it.
And so now with every fixture of such immense and increasing importance, attention must to turn Saturday’s evenings fixture with Sunderland – a team who operate at that annoying level where a victory cannot be guaranteed, yet anything but a win must go down as an absolutely dreadful result. Gus Poyet’s side surprise draw at Man City makes them (along with ourselves) one of only two teams to take points from the Etihad this season; it also provided them with a glimmer hope in their otherwise doomed campaign to avoid relegation. Sunderland fans must know however that their fate depends on their ability to win their three remaining home games, in even a situation as desperate as this; they must regard anything they can take away from Stamford Bridge as a bonus.
As for us, these remaining games against the smaller sides are where we need to make our real advantage in this title race count i.e. having a core of players and a manager who have won big titles in the past and are familiar with the pressure having no option but to win.
With Branislav Ivanovic suspended for the first leg of the Atletico Madrid tie, it would surely make sense to give Ashley Cole a game and a chance to retrieve at least some match sharpness ahead of Tuesday night, so I imagine he’ll play this weekend. In midfield, Ramires and Matic so far haven’t looked a natural partnership, and have been part of the sides that lost points at Palace, Villa and West Brom. David Luiz may start in place of Ramires, although he would probably represent an overly cautious selection. Oscar’s creativity was missed in the first half against Swansea last week and he’ll surely be recalled. Demba Ba probably deserves to keep his place in the XI also with two crucial goals in as many games, but I suspect Samuel Eto’o, having been the man Jose has trusted to start practically every big home match this season, to maintain his role.
Sunderland could well remain unchanged from their draw at Man City. Emanuele Giaccherini, the Italian international who assisted both of Connor Wickham’s goals, could come in for Fabio Borini however. Ki Sung-Yeung, who was so impressive in helping Sunderland eliminate Chelsea from the League Cup in December, is out with a knee injury.
Prediction: Under regular circumstances, for this Sunderland side to defeat Chelsea at Stamford would be an incredible upset; for them to get a result when Chelsea are within reaching distance of the Premier League title would make it one of the biggest upsets I’ve ever witnessed at SB. We’ll need to play better than we did last week at the Liberty Stadium, but I’d like to think that wouldn’t be too difficult.