Looking back, I think it’s strange how the five weeks which have passed since our loss to Newcastle, back in December, feel distinctly less successful than they actually were. We responded to that defeat on Tyneside with five comfortable, if not easy victories (progressing through to the League Cup semi-finals in the process); our draw to Southampton was disappointing (for obvious reasons) but was by no means a terrible result under the circumstances. In reality, only our poor and bizarrely uncharacteristic performance at White Hart Lane last Thursday, could be described as a genuine lowlight on our list of results throughout the final weeks of 2014.
I don’t feel though, that my seemingly distended lack of enthusiasm over Chelsea’s matches these past few weeks is without justification. Our lead at the top the table is gone for one thing, which, in fairness, must be put down largely to how excellent Man City have been, capitulation against Burnley aside, and especially with Sergio Aguero out injured. But more importantly there have been unmistakable and continued signs of regression on the field, leading up to what happened against Tottenham. Players have been making uncharacteristic mistakes, rightly receiving yellow cards for diving and, in general, simply the losing the aura of ‘champions in waiting’ which they ostensibly enjoyed throughout September and October.
In particular, the right hand side of our defence has become targeted more explicitly as the pair of Ivanovic and Cahill continue to perform with less form and confidence every week. Diego Costa has continued to chip in with goals but has offered far less with his movement and hold-up play than he was before the festive period. The attacking form of Willian and Oscar seems to have disappeared with the warm weather too. From match day one it was clear that Cesc Fabregas and Eden Hazard were the two geniuses in the team, but until now their brilliance was being used to supplement and support their teammates, not just carry them through games. We need the rest of the squad to raise their game if we are to re-establish the lead we earned throughout the opening weeks.
Newcastle, in contrast, have only won once since they defeated us last month and have lost games to Arsenal, Man Utd, Sunderland (at home, in the derby) and away to bottom placed, Leicester. They’ve also lost their manager, something which, though hardly suprising, given all that had occurred between Alan Pardew and the Newcastle fans, still couldn’t have happened under stranger circumstances. I don’t have any idea why Pardew, after all he has withstood, would leave for a smaller job, with a worse team, a smaller budget and a far less patient chairman. Though history would suggest that he has managed to leave at a time where things were going as well as they were ever going to. In other words, this was as great a position of strength as he was ever going to reach, so that he could end things on his terms. Either way, that Newcastle are out of form and manager-less for tomorrow, is all that matters.
Newcastle remain the side in the division most depleted by injuries, with several first team members unavailable for selection tomorrow, and another group who, though fit to start, will do so having only recently shaken off slight muscle injuries; the kind of which are all too common in the Premier League around this time of year. Tim Krul may be in line for a return following a bad foot injury, after he made an appearance for the club’s youth team last week. Captain Fabricio Coloccini and Daryl Janmaat should come back in to the side also, following their respective gluteal and groin-related lay-offs. In midfield, Newcastle have managed to find a neat balance between the physicality and tactical awareness of Cheick Tiote, the combativeness and energy of Jack Colback and the powerful directness of Moussa Sissoko – all three played well in Chelsea’s defeat at St James’ Park five weeks ago, and all should start again. In attack, Yoan Gouffran plays a limited but useful role staying high and wide on the right flank; Sammy Ameobi will be looking to take advantage of Branislav Ivanovic’s high positioning at right back once again, whilst Papiss Cisse will likely get the nod over young Ayoze Perez, as the Senegalese looks to continue his ridiculous scoring run against Chelsea.
After comfortably progressing through the third round of the Cup, Mourinho once again has a full strength side to choose from, as well as hopefully a side, largely if not wholly recovered from the fatigue which so adversely affected our previous league outing. Kurt Zouma continues to push for a starting position as Gary Cahill struggles but will likely continue to sit on the bench, though a solid goal-scoring performance against Watford will have done him no harm. Having been substituted at half-time in his previous two games, Oscar’s starting spot might be under pressure also. Loic Remy has shown he can score goals in a supporting role for Diego Costa, whilst the return to fitness of Ramires gives the manager another option, as he may be wary of conceding chances and goals to Newcastle on the counter-attack once again.
Chelsea: Courtois, Ivanovic, Cahill, Terry, Azpilicueta, Matic, Ramires, Fabregas, Willian, Hazard, Diego Costa
Newcastle: Krul, Janmaat, Williamson, Coloccini, Dummett, Tiote, Colback, Sissoko, Gouffran, Ameobi, Cisse
The key features to look for in this game are obvious because we’ve already identified them as the things which went so wrong last month, when we were defeated for the first time this season. Will the presence of Matic help to repress the physicality and energy of the Newcastle midfield? Will Ivanovic allow Ameobi to constantly find room on our right flank once again? And most importantly, will we find a way to overcome the obvious but effective game plan which has defeated us far too often against the Geordies these past few years.
As it was in this fixture last season, is at it more or less was on New Year’s Day against Tottenham, with Eden Hazard as our only serious attacking threat. In his current form it’s entirely likely that, should the defence remain unbeaten, the Belgian will find a way to win the game for Chelsea. But after a string off disappointing showings opver the past few weeks, what we should hope to see instead, is what we were seeing at the beginning of the season – the entire team working the ball quickly and intelligently to fashion chances everywhere in the attacking third, and not just from the left inside channel.
Games against Newcastle recently, more often than not have done a good job of exposing our weaknesses, a fact which should hopefully make a victory and positive performance all the more encouraging tomorrow afternoon. The simultaneous embarrassing defeat at Spurs and total dissolution of our lead over Man City last week was undoubtedly the low point of the season so far, but a comprehensive and dominant win tomorrow should allow the team to immediately disregard that evening as a blip, and a meaningless anomaly, in what has been, on the whole, an excellent campaign thus far.