As is not exactly uncommon, a looming occasion involving Chelsea FC on the English football calendar, is carrying with it a subplot and a pretext, generated and sustained by off-field incidents. This Sunday we take part in the League Cup final for the first time since 2008, but our ever presence in the back pages this past week has had little to do that particular achievement. Rather much of the media coverage surrounding the build-up to the game, has, and will continue to focus on Jose Mourinho and his expressed frustrations over the fast growing list of refereeing decisions, incorrectly awarded against his team.
Last weekend’s disappointing draw at home to Burnley, seemed to be the tipping point. It was the first time an amalgamation of poor pieces of officiating was seen to have genuinely cost Chelsea ground in the title race. It also prompted the manager to give a long interview on Sky Sports where he laid out all of his grievances in what was a gripping 30 minutes of television. But, though of course almost all of the Portuguese said was correct, I think this latest episode must represent the end of this saga of alleged conspiracy.
Three reasons why victory is a must at Wembley this weekend…
- Bring collective focus back onto the pitch – Continuing talk of any ‘campaign against Chelsea’ has to end now. Not only is it intellectually bankrupt (as well as boring), demanding as it does a retreat into the depths of logical consistency employed by young-Earth creationists and 9/11 ‘truthers’. But it is also, plainly, entirely self-defeating. If Mourinho’s complaints were going to pressure referees into giving his side the benefit of the doubt (even once in a while), it would have happened by now. Not unsurprisingly, it seems they’re more concerned about appearing to have been duped by Mourinho than they are about his accusations of involvement in a made up orchestrated project of anti-Chelsea sedition. Shocker!
- Return to form on the pitch – The form book shows that our last six games, though none of which (Burnley aside) have yielded particularly disappointing results, have only produced two victories, including a last minute winner against an unconvincing Everton side. I think it’s reasonable to say that this doesn’t represent the form of a side who are ready to compete seriously for major trophies in the coming months. Victory in our next three matches however would necessarily entail a domestic trophy, three valuable points in a tricky away fixture and progression to the Champions League quarter finals. These aren’t the kind of ten day periods which can make a season, but if you aren’t careful, they can very easily ruin one, as evidenced regularly by one North London club in particular.
- Revenge!!! – Less important, in many respects, but at the same time, victory would be all the sweeter on Sunday after the embarrassment we suffered at White Hart Lane in January. Of our three defeats this season, that result stands alone as the singular occasion on which our full strength side was deservedly beaten. Undoubtedly it was a lowlight in the season which the squad, as well as the fans, should be chomping at the bit to have rectified. The fact our only domestic cup final defeat since the Roman Abramovich takeover, was to Tottenham in the League Cup final in 2008, should add even more incentive, still.
Two bad results in the last six days shows that despite the strides forward Mauricio Pochettino has taken in making Spurs an effective hard-pressing side, his team ultimately remain the inconsistent, unconvincing entity we all know and love them for being. In midfield, it’s unlikely that Nabil Bentaleb or Ryan Mason will ever be anything more than solid, Premier League level players, but of the plethora of options Tottenham have for those roles, the pair have deservedly established themselves this season as the manager’s most trusted representatives in that position. Both work extremely hard; both are tidy passers and in the absence of Mikel and Nemanja Matic, we may struggle to contain them on Sunday.
Fortunately, the back four behind them aren’t as impressive. There has been little to no consistency in selection all year, while the full-backs, Danny Rose especially, represent a glaring weakness to be attacked. Sometimes watching Tottenham defend is reminiscent of our own struggles under Andre Villas-Boas in 2011, as we attempted to utilise a defensive line often just slightly too high to maintain. Jan Vertonghen, Erik Dier and Federico Fazio are all good players, but their aggressive deployment can leave all of them vulnerable at times. Upfront meanwhile, Christian Eriksen and Harry Kane are of course the key threats in the side. The Dane is one of the best players in the country and is liable to exploit any space left in the absence of Matic, while the Englishman’s relentless form continues, we’ll have to be much quicker to close him down than we were on New Year’s Day.
The key word when it comes to Chelsea team selection these days is, and will likely remain, ‘fatigue’. Arguably, our current full strength XI is the most well balanced and well drilled side Mourinho has had since his Porto team of 2003/4. The problem with a attaining such a delicate blend of qualities however is when certain members tire or are unavailable, the overall quality of the side can become drastically reduced. Each player is a cog in a machine and when it comes to which cog is the most important/most irreplaceable, there is a little debate to be had. Two of our three defeats this season include the only two matches Nemanja Matic has missed. There isn’t a team in the country that the Serb wouldn’t massively improve and who wouldn’t be much weaker for his absence. It’s a huge blow for sure.
With Mikel an injury doubt also, it will interesting to see how Mourinho approaches the game tactically. He has two options: either put his faith in Nathan Ake to do a job in a holding role, or else pack the midfield with our tenacious Brazilians to track Tottenham’s runners in central zones and get the ball forwards quickly to our superstar trio of Cesc, Hazard and Costa. The latter would certainly make for the more entertaining game and must be tempting given Spurs obvious weaknesses at the back. Though, for Mourinho, such an approach would be a tad out of character, to say the least.
Ultimately, victory in the League Cup final won’t go a long way to shaping any of the legacies of these players. The trophy on its own will certainly not constitute a successful season, while history would eventually consign a defeat to the status of a blip, on an otherwise formidable record. What we know it can be however, is an instigator. A confirmation for this group of their superiority and their ability to go all the way in a cup competition. 11 years ago, to the weekend, the 2005 League Cup proved to be beginning of a sensational period of winning trophies and finals; it would be nice in 10 years to look back on the 2015 edition with the same sense of nostalgia.