Chelsea experience deja vu against Reading

Posted by Phil Lythell

Just when you think that Chelsea are sailing towards a comfortable three points against Reading they manage to torpedo themselves once again.

A match that had been all but won instead ended with the inquests and finger-pointing that have slowly become the hallmark of Rafael Benitez's reign. These slips are happening far too often to be mere aberrations and they are threatening to derail what should be a comfortable march towards automatic qualification in the Champions League.

It had appeared that Chelsea might have turned the corner after breaking the deadlock at the end of a dour first half with the second period progressing swimmingly until Adam Le Fondre's intervention from the substitutes' bench. However, the complacency that has plagued Chelsea in recent weeks once again bubbled to the surface to help throw away two points.

The parallels with the 2-2 draw with Southampton are stark and the dip in performance once the two-goal lead had been established was plainly evident in both matches. Under previous managers Chelsea have been criticised, harshly in my view, for shutting up shop and locking down the three points rather than going for the jugular. While that approach might have frustrated those wishing to see games won by handsome margins at least it provided the comfort of knowing that the win was in the bag.

Now, the Blues seem to be caught between those two particular stools. They neither close ranks and make themselves impossible to penetrate, nor do they pile forward in search of the goal that would kill the game as a contest. If you add the second half of the win against Arsenal into the mix, where Chelsea looked impotent in the face of the Gunners onslaught, it is clear that a 2-0 lead is becoming an area of indecision, and possibly fear, amongst the players. In addition, opposing teams will have noted how brittle Chelsea are ,whatever the scoreline might be, providing them with encouragement and motivation in even the most parlous of situations.

What makes it so infuriating is that the game should have been over well before the comeback started in the 87th minute. Oscar had three opportunities to find the back of the net and although his first effort from a scissor kick was a very difficult skill to execute, he will know that he really should have stuck one of his other efforts away. But it wasn't as if Chelsea were peppering the goal. There was plenty of possession which is always positive, though the conversion into chances created was disappointing. The first half saw the visitors dominate the ball but it wasn't until stoppage time that a real sight of goal was glimpsed and then ruthlessly exploited by Juan Mata. The second half saw a greater degree of fluency in their passing game but too few genuine goalscoring opportunities were carved out.

Ultimately, though, what let Chelsea down was the defending in the closing stages. To give Reading their due, Adam Le Fondre took both his chances extremely well, though both could have been avoided. His smart run was only tracked belatedly and there always has to be a question mark against your goalkeeper when you are beaten at your near post as Ross Turnbull was. Until then the back four had done a fairly good job of protecting the error-prone stopper but then the floodgates were breached. Quite where the defensive organisation was when the equaliser was scored is anybody's guess. Despite the obvious threat to the Chelsea goal, there somehow managed to be three Reading players alone at the back post of which Le Fondre was one. Yossi Benayoun was the nearest blue shirt to the action but his total lack of awareness meant that there was no defender within sight of the Royals striker.

Benitez brought on Demba Ba in injury time, no doubt in a bid to run down the clock. However, it doesn't need the perfect vision of hindsight to see that perhaps it would have been more prudent to bring on somebody tailor-made for such a defensively critical period of the game. Somebody like John Terry, perhaps? Had the team's absent captain been on the pitch there is no guarantee that he would have personally intercepted the ball before it landed on Le Fondre's right foot but there is every chance that his team mates would have been ordered to their stations knowing exactly what their job was.

While I was totally against his initial appointment, I have been determined to give Benitez a fair crack of the whip though now my patience is being tested. Too many lacklustre displays coupled with overdue and unfathomable substitutions - bringing on Ryan Bertrand when Chelsea needed two goals at Swansea being another classic example - are ensuring that the masses will remain restless and that Roman Abramovich will not be employing the Spaniard on a full-time basis in the summer.

With that in mind, maybe this result wasn't such a bad thing after all.

Follow Phil Lythell on Twitter @PhilLythell

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