Saturday, September 22, 2012
Chelsea yet to click into gear
Kevin Palmer, Stamford Bridge
Chelsea's decision to invest so much of their attacking hopes in the less than reliable shooting boots of Fernando Torres was always laced with danger and on the evidence of Saturday's frustrating afternoon against Stoke, it may come back to haunt them.
Ashley Cole's 85th minute winner added a shimmering gloss to a Chelsea display that barely merited all three points, yet it was the lacklustre display and the increasingly negative body language of a striker whose £50m price tag seems to weigh so heavily on his shoulders that will have concerned Blues boss Roberto Di Matteo.
A glance at the Chelsea bench for this game confirmed that there was no genuine goalscoring alternative available to Di Matteo and so the striker who may have been relieved to be taken out of the firing line saw the game through to the end, without ever looking like scoring a goal to bolster his fragile self-belief.
Daniel Sturridge's injury has exposed the void in the squad whose striking options are threadbare aside from Torres, and while the hit-man's effort levels could not be questioned when squaring up to a Stoke defence notable for its powerhouse performers, his failure to get into threatening attacking positions provided an ominous footnote to this victory.
His best chance of the game summed up his uncertainty in front of goal. Found in the box with a delicious Mata chip, Torres failed to connect with his shot with the goal at his mercy after 25 minutes. He was not to get another chance all afternoon.
Di Matteo's plan to attack Stoke with three diminutive midfielders and Torres in the lone striking role was comprehensively snuffed out by Tony Pulis' visitors for the majority of this encounter and Chelsea's lead striker was not alone in failing to sparkle on a day when Juan Mata, Oscar and Eden Hazard were also nullified.
A three-point lead at the top of the Premier League standings suggests this new-look Chelsea team are finding a way to win despite their inconsistencies and Di Matteo was in no mood to listen to criticism as he met the media after the game.
"Torres is in a very good mood because he is a team that is at the top of the league," was all he would offer when pressed on the Spaniard's lacklustre contribution, though he was willing to admit his midfield line-up for this game will need time to find their feet as a unit.
"A team with Oscar, Hazard and Mata all starting clearly needs more work and practice, but I feel it will be successful," stressed Di Matteo. "It is a question of time and letting them to know each other better. I want them to have mobility and to try and find the space, but we lacked a little width at times and we need our full-backs to provide that at times.
"Anyway, I don't care who scores as long as we keep winning. We have goals coming from every area of the team this this makes us less predictable. We have players with great technical ability and guys who are good in small spaces. Every team that comes to Stamford Bridge play deep and it will be good to have players like this who should be able to break down this kind of opponent."
Typically forthright Stoke boss Tony Pulis pulled few punches as he entered the crowded Stamford Bridge press room to point accusing fingers at Chelsea duo Branislav Ivanovic and Oscar, after they tried and failed to win penalties after extravagant tumbles in the penalty box.
"I was disappointed with the simulation from Chelsea players trying to get penalties," fumed Pulis. "Ivanovic's first-half fall was laughable and Oscar's was the same. We should not stomach this part of the game in the Premier League, so let's continue to highlight people who do it. It's difficult enough to referee in the Premier League without lads putting the officials under massive pressure by diving."
His summation of the game was slightly less colourful, though he was right to suggest his side were unfortunate to leave empty-handed. "We are disappointed because in games against Arsenal, Man City and Chelsea, we have acquitted ourselves well," he added. "This is the best we have played at Stamford Bridge in our five years in the Premier League and we deserved something from it."
Opting to rest skipper John Terry and his fellow Chelsea legend Frank Lampard tended to get Andre Villas-Boas into trouble during his ill-fated spell as Blues boss, but Di Matteo had few qualms for this game as he unveiled a plan designed to pick apart opponents likely to employ negative tactics on a day when watching owner Roman Abramovich was expecting an improved performance from his side.
The Russian Tsar of Stamford Bridge had paid an impromptu visit to the club's training ground this week, sparking speculation that he was already growing frustrated with Di Matteo's efforts in a week when his side drew a blank against QPR and then surrendered a two-goal lead against Juventus in the Champions League.
This stuttering display was hardly what Abramovich would have been hoping for, but Di Matteo's success at the back end of last season means he has earned the time to find a balance in a refreshed Chelsea side that cannot be expected to click into gear overnight.
The odd indifferent display from Mata, Oscar and Hazard can be tolerated, as there are plenty of alternatives at Di Matteo's disposal if any of those three lose a touch of form, but the lack of stand-ins for Torres means he needs to deliver the goods like he has never done before on a weekly basis in Chelsea blue. Time will tell whether he can do just that.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Glenn Whelan
The Ireland midfielder worked tirelessly for the Stoke cause and also fizzed in some threatening free-kicks. He denied the trio of Hazard, Mata and Oscar the space they needed to thrive in.
UNEXPECTED SHOWER: The cheers rang around Stamford Bridge as Chelsea's excitable on-pitch announcer was soaked by a pre-match attack of a water sprinkler. Former Blues manager John Hollins was on hand to brush the water off the shoulders of his soaked suit.
Oscar was booked for his tumble in the box and Ivanovic was lucky to escape a similar caution after his laughable first-half dive. However, Stoke boss Pulis needs to be wary of criticising cheating players after he benefited from Peter Crouch's deliberate handball against Manchester City last weekend.
There are rarely any secrets emerging from a side whose approach to the game is as simple as it is effective. They deserved a point from this game, but a moment of slipping concentration cost them dear.
Some teams are built with a DNA to win games when they are a long way short of their best and so it proved as Cole popped up with a winner that brought a rare cheer from what had been a muted Stamford Bridge crowd.