Rotation the key to Chelsea's title ambitions

Posted by Phil Lythell

GLYN KIRK/AFP/Getty ImagesOscar is one of several Chelsea players who could stand to sit out a match in order to rest up for the Blues' crucial upcoming fixtures.

Through a quirk of fate and the self-confessed nervousness of a rival, Chelsea remain top of the Premier League despite their position being threatened by Victor Anichebe's late equaliser for West Bromwich Albion on Tuesday night.

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The apocalyptic weather that has beset the United Kingdom in the last fortnight ensured that it was too dangerous for Manchester City to kick off their home match against Sunderland. Meanwhile, down in London, Arsenal's cautious, insipid display against Manchester United ended in a drab, goalless draw -- a million miles from the snarling, relentless, enthralling encounters that these two old foes used to serve up with regularity. The chance for either of the Blues' closest title challengers to take command of the division was refused, whether by destiny or design.

With Manchester City now having a game in hand and that fixture likely to be played once most of their key players have returned from injury, Jose Mourinho will be aware that his club's current position is perhaps a slightly false one, but nevertheless they still sit indisputably on top of the tree. The trick now is for them to stay there, though that will require a shift in policy regarding team selection.

For the most part, Chelsea's starting 11 has been fairly easy to predict of late. The first choice back five is set in stone and the creative trident of Eden Hazard, Oscar and Willian has shown to be the most effective permutation from a previously bewildering array of options in that part of the team. Samuel Eto'o's eye for goal -- even if that has only been confined to Stamford Bridge thus far -- sees him given the nod ahead of Fernando Torres for the bigger games, which leaves only the defensive midfield as an area for conjecture with Ramires, Nemanja Matic, Frank Lampard, John Obi Mikel and David Luiz all jostling for a starting spot.

While the Blues' excellent form in the last two months should rightfully shield them from too much criticism for allowing two points to slip from their grasp at The Hawthorns, the bare facts were that the team -- or at least a few members of it -- looked rather jaded. The dynamism and exuberance of the win at the Etihad Stadium or the almost arrogant dominance exhibited in the weekend triumph over Newcastle was conspicuous by its absence and appears to have its roots in fatigue.

Hazard has been the deserved recipient of praise from all corners of the football world lately, though he was certainly subdued against the Baggies, no doubt a product of being a virtual ever-present this season and almost always completing 90 minutes. It is not a criticism, as no player of his ilk can be used that regularly and excel on every single occasion. Lionel Messi's record-breaking 2012 made him the closest to achieving that goal but, lest we forget, even he had a couple of average games against Chelsea in the Champions League. Hazard is Chelsea’s version of the Argentine maestro and his importance to the team is so great that he needs to be treated with care in order to get the best out of him when he does take the field.

Oscar has arguably been an even greater victim of being overworked with his stellar displays in the first few months of the campaign, but lately that has been replaced with solid, yet unspectacular performances. The Brazilian has not scored in the Premier League since New Year's Day, and his all-round influence has waned slightly since the advent of 2014. Both Oscar and Hazard will be crucial components of any success that the Blues have this year, and they need to be wrapped in cotton wool when the situation allows.

In modern times, top-level football has increasingly become a squad game with clubs' chances for success often governed less by the quality of their first team than by the calibre of player sitting on the bench. Chelsea have a decent smattering of talent waiting for the chance to impress, and they will need to be used intelligently in order to maximise performances and results. The sparing use of Andre Schurrle, Demba Ba, Ashley Cole and Mikel, among others, has meant that when they have been introduced, they have had little effect on the game. A lack of minutes on the pitch is hindering their sharpness and the ability to have a positive impact during the match.

It is hard to argue with Mourinho's modus operandi, as it has seen Chelsea climb to top spot and continue their participation in all competitions, bar the Capital One Cup, though the time has surely come for him to showcase his astute husbandry of resources. The return of Champions League football and potential progress in the FA Cup will see the fixture list begin to congest, demanding that squad rotation becomes all the more prevalent in order to keep its constituent parts as fresh as possible for the title run-in.

A personal wish would be for Hazard and some of the other more vital elements to the side given the coming weekend off to allow them to recharge their batteries, and if that means sacrificing the club's place in the FA Cup, then so be it. Chelsea have a wonderful affinity with that grand competition, and usually this blogger would be aghast at the thought of demeaning it by fielding an under-strength side. This season, however, Chelsea have a gilt-edged chance of lifting the Premier League trophy for the first time in four years and the opportunity to win this glittering prize must take precedence.

Whatever Mourinho decides in terms of priority will be made clear and any silverware that is lifted will be warmly received by the fans. One heavily suspects, though, that his downplaying of Chelsea's title chances is merely a smokescreen and maybe all will become clear when his team selection is revealed on Saturday.

Follow Phil Lythell on Twitter @PhilLythell


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