Chelsea looking for fringe benefits in title push

Posted by Phil Lythell

Cesar Azpilicueta Willian Chelsea celebPA PhotosCesar Azpilicueta and Willian celebrate Chelsea's opening goal at Arsenal.

Chelsea will return to Premier League action on Saturday at West Ham with manager Jose Mourinho desperately hoping his team can shrug off the inexplicable malaise that descended just before the international break.

He will be buoyed by the fact that the Blues face a relatively gentle run of fixtures that starts with the Hammers -- if a trip to Upton Park can ever be described as gentle -- and doesn’t feature a genuine title contender until they go to Arsenal Dec. 23. In their five league games before then, four opponents are in the bottom five of the table, with only surprise-package Southampton bucking that trend.

The Dec. 1 match against the Saints will be a stern test given they have taken four points from their visits to Anfield and Old Trafford, though it is still one that Mourinho will be penciling in as a win if he harbours the intention of finishing the season on top of the pile.

But even though the opposition over the next month or so might not appear to be particularly daunting, that does not provide a cue for the team to become complacent. That lesson has surely been learned after the damaging pair of games against Newcastle and West Bromwich Albion from which Chelsea gained just one point from the six they were aiming for and, in truth, can count themselves fortunate even to have acquired that many.

The players will no doubt return from their national teams to be presented with a stark reminder of their responsibilities from the manager in a bid to try to regather the momentum initially gained during a perfect October.

Mourinho’s modus operandi has shown that no player is safe; nobody is untouchable. Form and commitment to the team’s objective is everything, with reputation counting for little unless allied to application. He has shown definitively that he is not to be messed with and it would not be surprising should he ring the changes for Saturday’s match in East London and introduce into the fray some who have been on the fringes.

One player who looks likely to start is Cesar Azpilicueta, who earned a permanent place in the side last season only to find himself away from the forefront of Mourinho’s plans this term. While injuries to Ashley Cole and his usual understudy Ryan Bertrand has helped Azpilicueta’s cause and looks certain to cement his inclusion in the lineup this weekend, there can be no question that he has earned his place through performances on the field.

Mourinho had previously praised the player’s work ethic in training, almost as an apology for not giving him more time, though when he has featured the Spaniard has shown diligence in defence and energy in attack, even when stepping into the unfamiliar position of left back. He has illustrated that a player will get his rewards under the manager if he applies himself as required when called upon.

The same fate could befall John Obi Mikel, who has only been involved intermittently this season. The central midfield pairing of Ramires and Frank Lampard has its virtues -- namely energy and forward thrust -- but lacks positional discipline and bite and has looked a little ragged of late, particularly in the defeat at St James' Park. Mourinho’s pragmatism could see him turn to the Nigerian to anchor a midfield that needs some stiffening up, though his introduction could have other positive effects -- such as releasing Lampard or Ramires to do their work farther up the field, areas where they feel more comfortable.

Michael Essien is the forgotten man at Stamford Bridge, though he could also lay claim to the same role laid out for Mikel. His injuries the past few years have meant that he has barely featured for the Blues -- playing only in the Capital One Cup -- though he will certainly have benefited from two 90-minute outings for Ghana in their successful World Cup playoff with Egypt.

Essien’s rustiness was evident in the League Cup match at Arsenal, yet there were still glimpses of The Bison’s old power in that display. He might never recapture the dominance of old, though he remains a potential asset to a fragile midfield.

A player marginalised for completely different reasons has been Kevin de Bruyne, who began the season starting two of the first three games, including the early season six-pointer at Manchester United. Since then, he has drifted out of contention, a mixture of competition for places and a perceived lack of effort during his appearance in the league cup tie at Swindon.

The 22-year-old paid the price for his lethargy with just one appearance since mid-September, which prompted Eden Hazard to tell the Belgian press that his compatriot could benefit from a move away from the club in January in order to cement his place at the World Cup next year.

However, of equal value would be to show his manager that he has learned the lesson of his demotion. Mourinho might have exhibited ruthlessness with senior players in his previous role at Real Madrid, though he is unlikely to permanently cast aside a young talent on the back of one lacklustre performance. Something else in De Bruyne’s favour is his versatility; he can play either in an attacking position or a more withdrawn role as the management team looks for options.

Of course, earning game time is one thing while keeping your spot is something else entirely. Chelsea now have a run of fixtures in which they can really show their worth, and that applies as much to the individual as it does to the team in general. There’s no room for complacency; it's now time to shine.

Follow Phil Lythell on Twitter @PhilLythell

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