Can tourney glory inspire Chelsea?
The match we all hoped to see in the Club World Cup Final kicks off early Sunday morning with Chelsea taking on Brazilian powerhouses Corinthians (live, FOX Soccer, 5:30 a.m. ET). It’s a must-win game for the Blues, a team still searching for confidence after a tumultuous fall that saw manager Roberto Di Matteo cruelly sacked.
Chelsea has been in a tailspin since October, when an ugly loss to Manchester United upended what had been one of the best shows in the Premier League. Under Di Matteo, new stars Oscar and Eden Hazard had been combining with Juan Mata to form a slick-passing attack that seemed unbeatable. But the game – which was then followed by unfounded accusations of racism on the part of referee Mark Clattenburg — proved to be the team’s Waterloo.
Di Matteo would finally walk the plank after a comprehensive loss to Juventus that effectively removed them from Europe, becoming the first Champions League title-holders to fail to get out of the group stage. Di Matteo’s ouster was hastened by the fact that the manager had finally run out of patience with the misfiring and hugely expensive striker Fernando Torres, who seems to be a personal favorite of owner Roman Abramovich. The answer, in his mind was to hire Rafael Benitez on an interim basis, a polarizing move among the club’s supporters which has yet to fully pay dividends.
Chelsea have finally begun to win games, but the caliber of the competition is questionable: a thrashing of tiny Nordsjaelland and a 3-1 win over troubled Sunderland are hardly scalps worth bragging about.
But Thursday, Chelsea did put a decent Monterrey side to sleep in Japan and in the process, continued the mini-revival of Torres’ form in front of the net. Torres has now scored five goals in his past three games, and twelve overall this season to date – more than he netted for the Blues all of last season.
All of this will be for naught if Chelsea cannot get the job done Sunday morning. The Club World Cup – a minor title that has only been fitfully relevant – has taken on greater meaning for the Blues this season. Simply put, Chelsea cannot afford to lose against a Corinthians side that looks uninspired despite their pedigree.
The Brazilians won their first Copa Libertadores crown last June without losing a single game. Stingy in front of the goal — they only coughed up four goals in their 14 Libertadores games — Corinthians have looked flat so far nonetheless, getting past Egypt’s Al Ahly only thanks to a goal from Paolo Guerrero.
Corinthians are a tough nut to crack, particularly because they play a more “European” and compact style, largely eschewing the use of forward-ranging backs. What Corinthians are good at is getting hold of the ball and playing keep-away: it is expected that they will try and pack the back, with Ralf, Paulinho and Paulo playing spoiler down the gut, then looking to spring Guerrero on the break.
This will present a tactical challenge to Benitez as his midfield has been especially weak of late. When Juan Mata is in the frame, Chelsea is a far better attacking side – but they also lose midfield steel. In fact, the most interesting aspect of this game might be the opportunity to see a future Chelsea player before he puts on a blue jersey: Paulinho, a crafty box-to-box midfielder much in the English mode, is expected to be a transfer target for the London club.
The other irony of the game is that even if Chelsea win as expected, their fans are unlikely to care very much. Their sights are set on staying in the hunt for the Premier League and getting enough pieces to challenge again for the Champions League next season. A piece of silverware make take some of the heat off Benitez in the near term, but it is of little relevance to the club’s long-term future.