Difficult week ends with positives for Chelsea

Posted by Phil Lythell

Ian Kington/AFP/Getty ImagesDavid Luiz and the Chelsea defense kept Manchester City's high-flying attack at bay on Sunday at Stamford Bridge.

To say the last week has been full of surprises would be something of an understatement. The removal of Roberto Di Matteo provided a significant jolt to the system which was followed by the thunderbolt of Rafael Benitez's appointment. The surprises continued on Sunday against Manchester City but thankfully these were of a more positive nature.

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The first of those was the relatively muted nature of protest from the stands. While the right to protest is a supporter's inherent right, there is always the danger that it can become all-consuming and can transmit to the players -- the emotion becoming counter-productive and detrimental to the team's performance. There were songs sung decrying the new manager and the game started with a tangible crackle in the air, but the overall atmosphere was far less poisonous than had been expected in the days running up to the match judging by the fervour whipped up via social media. The supporters certainly made their feelings known, though it was far from a witch hunt. And as the game progressed, the focus was largely switched towards events on the field, rather than decisions made in the boardroom.

Di Matteo was the subject of several rousing choruses including a minute's applause when the stadium clock ticked over to 16 minutes in relation to the Italian's shirt number when he was a player at Stamford Bridge. Perhaps the anger was put into perspective against the respect shown for the recently departed Dave Sexton -- the man who led Chelsea to their first ever FA Cup and European Cup Winners Cup wins in 1970 and 1971 respectively -- whose life was celebrated with more applause prior to kick off from home and away fans alike.

There were banners in support of Di Matteo and against Benitez but nothing of any real offence. However, that did not stop stewards attempting to confiscate one in the Matthew Harding stand that criticised the club directors, the actions prompting an unseemly scuffle. Thankfully, the fracas died down as quickly as it began, but it is a little concerning that there was an attempt to silence the views of some supporters purely because it questioned the regime. Freedom of speech remains the cornerstone of democracy and it is disturbing to think that such heavy-handed tactics could become the norm at football grounds with the same problems having been experienced at Old Trafford when Manchester United fans rallied against the owning Glazer family.

However, beneath all the tension surrounding the revolving door in the manager's office, a football match actually took place at Stamford Bridge and it was there that the second pleasant surprise occurred: a Chelsea clean sheet. The last time the Blues managed to stop the opposition from scoring in the Premier League was over two months ago when Stoke City were beaten 1-0 on the 22nd September but that feat was finally repeated against a City team that had netted 25 times in their 12 previous league encounters this season. It was very welcome not least because Chelsea never really looked like scoring, finally forcing Joe Hart into action in the final minutes of the game when he turned a rasping drive from Ashley Cole over the bar only for the referee to award a goal kick.

But rather than focus on the shortcomings in attack, it is the vastly improved performance at the back that merits attention. Cesar Azpilicueta had easily his best game for the club, reaffirming the obvious fact that you can only improve by playing games. The Spaniard has looked a little lightweight at times, especially when comparing his slight physique against the hulking presence of regular right back Branislav Ivanovic, though he is adapting quickly to his new surroundings. A crucial block on a Sergio Aguero shot was followed by a near flawless defensive performance in which he showed a handy knack of intercepting City's short passing game as well as executing some very beautifully-timed tackles. His clever movement and distribution were also useful going forward though he will have to work on his crossing if he wants to become a real attacking weapon.

David Luiz was also exemplary, managing to get through the whole game without making any real errors. He did misplace one pass to Eden Hazard in the first half but otherwise he showed a rarely seen dependability and it is hoped this is the beginning of a new positive stage of his Chelsea career. Ashley Cole was superb once again and Branislav Ivanovic barely gave Aguero, Edin Dzeko, Carlos Tevez or Mario Balotelli a sniff of goal.

There remains plenty of work to do in the coming weeks -- notably in the creation and converting of chances -- but for the moment at least the rot has been stopped. That has to be a good thing, whoever is sitting in the dugout.

Follow Phil Lythell on Twitter @PhilLythell

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