After watching Chelsea fall to an extra-time defeat to Sunderland in the quarterfinal of the Capital One Cup, it was natural to be enveloped in that jarring, unwanted sensation of disappointment.
Whatever team you support and whoever the opposition -- be it a European behemoth or a lower-league chancer -- that prominent void in the pit of one's stomach will always make itself known. It is even more galling when it comes off the back of a match that your team has completely dominated and was within moments of winning. Nothing deflates the supporter so much as the snatching of defeat from the jaws of victory.
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The reverse at the Stadium of Light was another familiar chapter in Chelsea's curious season to date -- one that has contained as much wonder as bewilderment. The team are almost at the mercy of the toss of a coin, with nobody really knowing just how each game is going to progress. For all the impishness of Eden Hazard, the guile of Oscar, the silk of Willian and the penetrative directness of Andre Schurrle, the Blues always seem to remain just one mis-kick or momentary imbalance away from ceding the advantage.
It is a strange state of affairs and is one that also plagued the tenures of Luiz Felipe Scolari, Carlo Ancelotti and Andre Villas-Boas before now posing a challenge to Jose Mourinho. As with his predecessors, the Portuguese has been given a remit from owner Roman Abramovich to not only win, but to do so with a certain degree of panache. It is an admirable objective, though it is a transformation that cannot be done effectively at the drop of a hat and without having each of the components necessary to employ such a system.
That Chelsea have not yet found this Holy Grail is not because it is an impossible dream, but rather that the club's hierarchy have not been prepared to wait for the metamorphosis to be complete before firing a succession of managers in the pursuit of instant success. By and large, those decisions have proved profitable, as the Champions League win in 2012 highlights, though it does signify a major flaw in the development of the long-term identity of the team's playing style.
It was therefore interesting to hear Mourinho's comments after Tuesday night's loss in which he openly juxtaposed his opinions that "the quality of football we produced was amazing" with his assertion that "football is about getting results and it's quite frustrating as we may have to take a step back in order to be more consistent at the back." These two statements might appear to be slightly conflicting -- an oxymoron, almost -- though in fact it is much more likely that this is Mourinho's way of sending a coded message to his boss that regular positive results and aesthetically beautiful football are, at present, mutually exclusive at Chelsea.
It is almost a challenge to Abramovich to decide what he actually wants from his team. If it is to be the Joga Bonito of Brazil and Barcelona then it must be accepted that there will a few bumps on the road to achieving this dream. While players adapt to their new individual responsibilities and the team learns how to behave as a single organism, there are bound to be a few frailties, and they will certainly be exposed in the developmental stage.
Should a more target-driven course be chosen then that would demand a far more pragmatic approach with leads in matches protected rather than extended and the ambitious replaced by the cautious. It would also demand some changes to the squad as the team is top-heavy with creativity and deficient of the more prosaic, physical type of footballer needed to execute the job properly.
Mourinho has thus protected himself skilfully while also making a perfectly valid point. The owner needs to decide what is ultimately more important to him: constant yet bitty success or something more substantial that would cement his legacy even further? If he wants the latter then some patience is required along with some faith in the current manager.
The re-appointment of Mourinho suggests that there is a genuine respect, if not quite a rapport, between the two and it is therefore reasonable to assume that the Special One will be given the requisite time to work his magic. The club's owner and its supporters must be prepared to take the rough with the smooth in the short term in order to reap the rewards further down the line, and if that means finishing in the top four without a trophy then so be it.
That does not mean that ambitions have to be stifled, but expectations need to be realistic. Chelsea could win the title this season, though there is a greater chance that they will not, especially with Manchester City currently looking a cut above the rest. That is as true now as it was at the start of the campaign. But if Mourinho is afforded the luxury of working to his own plans then next season could see a more concerted and successful push for major silverware.
As for the immediate future, perversely the exit from the Capital One Cup could well be to the benefit of the Blues. Last season's extended marathon of 69 games was born out of the fact that Chelsea went deep into the latter stages of two competitions that were ranked fifth and sixth in priority out of the eight in which they competed -- seventh and eighth being the one-off ties in the UEFA Super Cup and FA Community Shield. Although the Europa League was won, it all served to give the club a horrendous schedule, a demand that certainly took its toll on the players. Defeat at Sunderland has removed two games from the calendar in January as well as the final the following month, meaning that the workload has been eased on the squad allowing them more time to focus on the Premier League and the Champions League.
It will also provide Mourinho with more opportunities to get things right on the training ground at both ends of the pitch. Time to work is crucial to success even if, for Abramovich, it is also of the essence.
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