The sad fact of the matter is there were many occasions last season which you could isolate, as the moment when Chelsea ‘threw away’ the Premier League title. The defeat away to Aston Villa came at time when virtually everything seemed to be in our favour and you could argue the manner of that particular loss (with two red cards) was symbolic of a much greater loss of control on the title race itself. The home defeat to Sunderland could hardly have come at worse time and felt like a rather pathetic surrender Mourinho’s unbeaten league record at the Bridge. The subsequent home draw against Norwich involved a similar feeling of having rolled over pitifully.
For me though, the worst memories from last season’s title run-in are those we took from Selhurst Park. Even after the Villa defeat we were still clearly in the strongest position to become champions, but after losing to Crystal Palace we seemed to have forfeited all momentum and never looked likely winners from thereon in. Looking back, that result was also perfectly emblematic of all our problems last season. The fact that I had to look up Fernando Torres started the game and not Samuel Eto’o, suggests the Spaniard’s input to the tie was as inconsequential as ever. Eden Hazard was relentlessly marked out of the game, as we showed an utter lack of creativity and variety in the way we approached, and especially in the way we chased the game after going behind. This is why this weekend’s fixture takes on extra importance, offering as it does, an opportunity to draw a line under those problems once and for all.
Fortunately though, all the evidence from this season so far would suggest those issues are already a thing of the past. Diego Costa has been by a distance the most influential forward player in the league, whilst credible consistent goal threats are beginning to emerge all over the pitch, and not just from the small playmaker on our left wing. After three consecutive clean sheets, the defence is still a clear area of strength also. The most important tangible difference from last season however, is that now we look like a side who knows exactly what they need to do and what they should be doing at every stage during a game; we’re also playing with the righteous confidence of a team that knows they can beat you in a number of different ways too.
Our opponents this weekend are a team to be admired in many ways also. Neil Warnock only experienced defeat for the first time during his most recent fixture, after overseeing a thrilling away draw to Newcastle and a victory away to Everton last month. Victory against Leicester, a draw to Burnley and a narrow loss to an in form Hull City side constitute a solid opening five games for Warnock, who is back in the job he left in 2010.
Wisely, he seems to have changed very little of the work which Tony Pulis had begun last season. The Welshman’s turnaround of the club, from relegation certainties to a comfortable mid-table side, was a phenomenal effort and his ‘Manager of the Year’ trophy was richly deserved. I guess Warnock’s appointment on paper represented the kind of continuity the club must have been desperate for. Similarly to Pulis, their new manager is probably better working with an unspectacular, but disciplined and hard working group of players, whose main focus is always being difficult to break down. Recent additions made to the team have been also been clever ones. Joe Ledley and Scott Dann added Premier League quality and depth back in January. Likewise, James McArthur and Martin Kelly have both fitted in nicely since arriving in the summer. Whilst Wilfred Zaha’s return will have provided a lift among the supporters and should hopefully add flair to a system which can be impressive in its efficiency, but often uninspiring to watch.
Looking at the home side’s likely starting XI, it’s difficult to pick out any key threat. The defence is clearly the strong point and the back four make up a strong unit, with full back Joel Ward the one player who provides genuine quality in his position. Captain Mile Jedinak is an excellent leader and organiser from that defensive midfield position, also. Yannick Bolasie is one of those players who can be dangerous but must be infuriating to have on your team, for all the times he gets in to good positions only to waste possession. Jason Puncheon and Frazier Campbell have both scored in big games before, but the fact that no Palace player has scored more than one league goal so far is indicative of the individual quality of their forward line.
Chelsea’s team meanwhile is becoming usefully easy to predict. Thibaut Courtois thankfully has recovered completely from his knock against Arsenal and can continue in goal. The back four looks perfectly settled with Mourinho decidedly sticking with Cesar Azpilicueta at left back. Fabregas may have been dropped for Spain against Luxembourg but remains in relentlessly wonderful form for his club. Only Andre Schurrle, who was subbed off in his country’s loss to Poland, stands to lose his regular starting spot to Willian, who helped Brazil to beat Argentina 2-0 – a game where Oscar helped to create both goals. Diego Costa usefully got a month’s worth of bad misses out of his system for Spain before eventually scoring his first international goal, while Eden Hazard was rested last Friday only as a precaution.
What’s most intriguing about this fixture is that will most likely be our first meeting this season, against a side that will purely sit in front of their penalty area and play for a 0-0 draw. Aston Villa may have done this a few weeks ago as they did at home to City in their following game, but they were undone at the Bridge by Oscar’s early goal. To briefly digress, Man City’s performance in that game against Aston Villa was an extremely typical one, in that it was largely uninspiring and saved only by the individual quality of their big-name players – the kind of performance which I think, has allowed them to dominate during a period of relatively low quality at the top end of the table. I find it highly doubtful that this City side would’ve won a single league title, during the division’s golden era, which saw Arsenal’s invincibles, Mourinho’s record breaking Chelsea side and the Man Utd of Cristiano Ronaldo. I don’t think they’ve ever been consistent or adaptable enough, and have perpetually been too heavily reliant on their best players to win matches. If I were a City fan, I’d worry that the rest of the league’s increasing awareness of their vulnerability to hyper defensive and counter attacking tactics may begin cost them more and more points from this point onwards.
And this is precisely what we need to demonstrate that teams cannot do to us against Crystal Palace on Saturday. We can’t just look to apply relentless pressure around their penalty area in the hope that Hazard or Costa will eventually do something amazing. We need to show how multi-faceted our attacking play can be. We need to have Cesc playing long balls forward from deep, and have Hazard and Willian running directly down the wings, orchestrate some nice interplays around the 18 yard line, threaten from set pieces, interchange positions and generally be as varied and creative with our approach play as possible. We need to show how we are more than simply the sum of our most talented parts and how we can be threatening to a stubborn defence in more ways than they can possibly keep track of.
Essentially, all I want is a comfortable 2/3-0 win – a score line that certainly won’t shock or concern anyone, but one which could, potentially, do so much to alleviate any final lingering concerns over the problems we faced last season. This could well be the toughest test yet of the patience and the creativity of our attacking players. No problem has been too great for them so far and I predict they will rise comfortably to the challenge once again, with Costa to get his 10th league goal before he’s even learnt his 10th word of English. Enjoy the game…