London giants Chelsea take on Liverpool in a critical Premier League clash Sunday that has the potential to define both teams’ immediate future. Both need a win: Chelsea, simply to keep pace with the Manchester giants; Liverpool, to gain ground in a title race that sees them a full 12 points off the top slot after only 11 games.
Chelsea fans have seen their team take a number of body blows already this season, raising the question of whether this is a squad in rebuild — or a team close to collapse.
That the Blues are within striking distance of the top is arguably a surprise given the woes they’ve had to overcome, including (but hardly limited to) lackluster performances by their strikers and midfielders, on and off-field drama involving key players, and some confidence-shattering losses.
Over all of this hangs a damaging stat: Chelsea have yet to win against a member of the Big Four this season. They have lost to Manchester United, Arsenal and QPR, and been held to draws by Fulham, Genk and Valencia. The Blues have also labored to wins in several games, most recently against cellar-dwelling Blackburn. By no measure should anyone think this is the imperious side that swept through the Prem in recent years.
Let’s start with the obvious: Didier Drogba remains a harassing threat, but he has not turned that into productive numbers this season, scoring only once. Fernando Torres is little better, scoring only twice in the league despite consistent starts. The less said about Nicolas Anelka the better.
Midfield is another worry, with possession too cheaply conceded by the likes of Jon Obi Mikel and Raul Meireles, and key man Michael Essien is out until December at the earliest. Juan Mata and Ramires have both proven to be gems, but neither are at their best tracking back, causing problems for a back line that seems to get weaker with every passing day. That allowed, it would be remiss not to mention the rebirth of Frank Lampard, who has ably answered the call of late after a worrying start to the year.
But when the ball is given away – and it is, often – trouble starts. The heart of Chelsea’s defense has proven especially porous. John Terry had already lost a step coming into the season, needing the play to unfold in front of him to make any impact. Now, teams are simply isolating him or bypassing him, forcing Branislav Ivanovic and Ashley Cole to make daring tackles that neither man is capable of. David Luiz would seem to be the answer, but he is as careless as he is brilliant, and has proven more of a liability than an asset.
Terry, of course, has also managed to keep himself in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons — reasons that should call his fitness for the captaincy into question. His latest lapse sees him facing a Metropolitan Police investigation for racial abuse of Anton Ferdinand during the Blues’ 1-0 loss at QPR.
The question is this: Is young manager Andre Villas-Boas in over his head, or is he in the midst of the fallow period that inevitably hits a team? Chelsea fans may not be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt at present, but they should. The fact is, his challenges to older players have largely paid off and his youngsters have shown growth. What is hampering the team is the deadwood acquired under past regimes — or the foolishness of owner Roman Abramovich, Torres being exhibit A.
Failure to win at home against the Reds will leave the Blues at least three games out of the race and with an increasingly slim margin for error. That might not be a bad thing, all considered: the Blues’ youth corps looks impressive and should keep them bubbling at the top of table for seasons to come. The problem is that Villas-Boas has to win now. He doesn’t yet have the tools to do that.