Wednesday, November 28, 2012
More questions than answers
Miguel Delaney, Stamford Bridge
Another night of negativity at Stamford Bridge. Except this time, to be fair, it wasn't down to the anger in the stands. Because, until the end, there were no discernible boos.
They only came as a consequence of an atrocious match in which there were no goals, no real incidents and certainly no Chelsea chances. In short, other than Dimitar Berbatov's touches, it was dull, dreary stuff.
The only real anti-Rafa Benitez chants arose in the final few minutes when the home crowd sang "we want our Chelsea back".
While it would be unfair to overtly blame a manager still adjusting to a new team for that, the crowd did a have a point. Despite a team filled with attacking talent, this latest 0-0 represented the first time in the entire Roman Abramovich era that Chelsea have failed to score for three consecutive games. It was also the first time since 2004, when they were managed by Claudio Ranieri, that they have seen two 0-0 draws in a row.
It said a lot that a Fulham team with the fourth worst defensive record in the division kept only a third clean sheet, and that Martin Jol lamented a missed opportunity to win such a notionally difficult away game. John Arne Riise had the best chance of the match shortly after half-time, before then stinging Petr Cech's hands with a long drive.
"At 80 minutes, we had two possibilities to make it," Jol said. "I'm not disappointed to only get a draw away from home, but disappointed we didn't make more of those chances."
At the very least, Benitez has sorted out the defence. Even the Spaniard, though, couldn't hide behind caveats like that.
"Everybody here is disappointed at the end," he explained. "We have to give credit to Fulham who worked very hard, but these are the games we have to win. You cannot be satisfied when you haven't won these games."
The biggest problem for Chelsea at the moment is that they never even really suggested winning here. For a team that surfed a wave of momentum from last season's Champions League victory, it is as if all life has been sucked out of the team.
Some of that is undoubtedly down to the manager's shuffling of the team in terms of shape and emphasis, even if he denied it afterwards.
"Not really," he countered. "You try to organise your team in defence, and make sure the line is in a good position, but the players with quality are there on the pitch. it's a question of confidence and getting them the ball quickly.
To make some allowance for Benitez, he did point to a problem there, as well as a few others, that did precede him.
For a player who was lighting up the league just two months ago, Eden Hazard has faded badly. Here, almost every touch he took in an attacking position simply put him into trouble. Oscar, meanwhile, barely had a progressive touch at all. Juan Mata did inject some energy when he came on, but previous exertions meant he didn't start here.
Finally, of course, there was Fernando Torres. In 2005, a series of cameras captured Zinedine Zidane's every moment in order to provide a portrait of excellence. Had the same been done for the Spanish striker it would have been an equally interesting portrayal of deterioration. The match started with Torres taking a heavy touch and ended with him rubbing his face in anguish as yet another half-chance got away from him.
There were a few snapshots in this game that defined his decline. On 38 minutes, Oscar played a pass towards the penalty box that took a deflection. At his absolute peak, Torres would have immediately snapped onto that, turned and lashed a hard drive at goal. Here, he was actually stationary for a moment before eventually moving all too slowly.
Towards the end such slowness saw him on the fringes of every Chelsea attack. When substitute Marko Marin had the ball on the right and was readying himself to cross, Torres looked to almost be backing away from the box.
The striker did eventually have one of only two Chelsea shots on target all night as well as the team's best chance, but even that summed things up: a tame shot into Mark Schwarzer's arms.
Around Chelsea's training ground, at the moment, a few questions have been asked about the team's conditioning and whether Torres's training, for example, has been tailored to properly maximise his abilities and physique.
Benitez explicitly stated this on Tuesday, and reiterated the importance of getting back on the Cobham training ground.
"We have only had five training sessions, it is not easy... it's a question of time. We've only had a few training sessions. We need more time," he added.
Similarly, it's worth looking to the times when Benitez's sides have played genuinely entertaining football: with Valencia, when they were perfectly conditioned, and with Liverpool at the end of the 2008-09 season. Both were the result of specific player selection and meticulously planned training programmes. As goes without saying, he doesn't enjoy such circumstances at Stamford Bridge.
Whether he can adjust in time is the big question. Benitez, however, insists that Chelsea can still adjust to a worsened league position. When asked whether they could still win the title, he was unequivocal.
"It's still a long way to go," the manager said. "We have to keep going. We'll have chances. Remember last season when [Manchester] City were ahead and it was easy. Then, they needed to win their last game. It's a long, long competition. Why can't we [win the league]?"
Fans will point to performances like that. Benitez, however, will point to the training ground. Either way, there's a lot of work to be done before anyone at the club sees any true positives again.