FOX Soccer Exclusive
Chelsea, Arsenal in deep trouble
To borrow an infamously cynical expression that entered the English political sphere a decade ago, it looked like a good weekend to bury bad news -- especially as far as the capital city’s soccer was concerned.
No sooner had Chelsea, London’s best early-season bet to challenge the Manchester giants for the Premier League title, lost at West Ham than Arsenal went down at home to Swansea City, plunging that vast institution into arguably the deepest crisis since Arsene Wenger arrived from Japan to become its widely revered coach in 1996.
The question of whether Wenger should step down is now being seriously asked. It is no longer a case of criticism being diverted to major shareholder Stan Kroenke, who cuts an uninspiring figure on his rare visits from America, and the American-trained chief executive Ivan Gazidis – not to mention the rather lofty figurehead Peter Hill-Wood.
True, those fans wishing for a takeover by long-term investor Alisher Usmanov will have had their ranks further swollen by the two late goals that Michu – such a hit since arriving in Wales from Spain during the summer – put past Arsenal goalie Woijczek Szczesny. But Silent Stan didn’t prepare that losing team – and it wasn’t Ivan who was terrible out there on the pitch.
So Wenger and his players head for Athens desperately needing to claw back some pride by beating Olympiakos and finishing top of their Champions League group. But at least a little of the pressure is diverted by the bizarre situation in which Chelsea finds itself little over six months after becoming the champion club of Europe. Wenger might like to be in a somewhat different place – but he wouldn’t swap with Rafa Benitez.
Some coaches just never had a fair chance. Think Roy Hodgson at Liverpool, where the fans wanted Kenny Dalglish, or Alex McLeish after he crossed the city of Birmingham to join Aston Villa. Take those to two mountains to climb, put one on top of the other and keep going and eventually you will reach Benitez’s chance of convincing the Chelsea support that he’s a worthy successor to Roberto di Matteo.
Rafa upset those fans when he was at Liverpool and many took out their dismay at owner Roman Abramovich’s sacking of Di Matteo on the Spaniard by spoiling his debut appearance in the Stamford Bridge dugout, chanting that he wasn’t welcome. That was a scoreless tie with Manchester City and a similar outcome ensued when Fulham made the short trip to the Bridge.
When Juan Mata put Chelsea in front at West Ham, converting a clever cutback from Fernando Torres – the owner’s favorite and the man Benitez knew how to handle from his Liverpool days – it seemed the new regime might be seeing a chink of light. But then the gloom descended as goals from Carlton Cole, Mohamed Diame and Mobido Maiga gave extended Chelsea’s run without a win to seven games.
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- Clattenburg off duty once again
- Ferguson refuses to believe claims
- Police launch formal investigation
- Ref stood down, FA starts probe
- Referees' union backs Clattenburg
- Chelsea reports ref to Premier League
- PL referees ponder Chelsea boycott
- Video: PFA exec comments on case
Though Chelsea were League leaders and playing lovely soccer before United came calling, it turned ugly that day. Branislav Ivanovic and Torres were red-carded – the latter harshly – by referee Mark Clattenburg, against whom Chelsea officials promptly made allegations that he had used the word ‘’monkey’’ towards Nigerian midfielder John Obi Mikel.
The source was Mikel’s teammate Ramires. Both the police and the Football Association subsequently concluded that he had been, in effect, horribly mistaken, possibly through a poor command of the English language (Ramires is Brazilian and, until 2010, had lived only there and in Portugal). Chelsea’s apology was half-hearted. In their undoubted embarrassment, they received little sympathy; all of that commodity was rightly directed at Clattenburg.
The referee is now back in action – he supervised the Arsenal game, his second in four days – but Chelsea still struggle with troubles of their own making and Benitez will hardly be looking forward to Wednesday’s game against Nordsjaelland, even though his team should easily overcome their Danish opponents, because it is at home, crazy though that may sound.
A further complication is that Chelsea could win and still go out of the Champions League, handing over their European title before we even get to the knockout stages. That will happen if Juventus, favored to qualify since the 3-0 win in Turin that hastened Di Matteo’s departure, avoid defeat by Shakhtar in Donetsk.
Chelsea can only hope the Ukrainian club performs a favor. Because, if the London club finds itself out of the Champions League – the competition that means most to Abramovich – getting back may not be easy. Indeed it would be impossible without a radical improvement on the domestic form of the past month. And how would that come with the crowd constantly sneering – and worse – at coach Benitez?
What Chelsea faces is a world away from the Arsenal situation, in which even the protestors are silently praying for Wenger to come through his troubles. Chelsea could very soon be looking at a real crisis.
Patrick Barclay is one of England's most experienced soccer writers. He has covered the game for every broadsheet newspaper and attended eight World Cups and nine European Championships. Barclay is the author of biographies of Jose Mourinho (Further Anatomy of a Winner) and Sir Alex Ferguson (Football - Bloody Hell!) You can follow him on Twitter @paddybarclay.
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