Chelsea's Defensive Resolve Comes Alarmingly Unstuck

For 44 minutes Chelsea's safety-first approach looked to be once again successful, but its limitation is only exposed when the inevitable mistake occurs. And how...

Last Updated: 01/05/14 at 13:39 Post Comment

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Chelsea's season is now all but over, fights on all four fronts ended without success. In all likelihood this will be the first season since 2003/04 that the club has failed to win a trophy or finish in the top two of the Premier League. Managers at Stamford Bridge have been sacked for less.

It is also Jose Mourinho's second consecutive season without a trophy, unthinkable given the quality of the squads at his disposal in London and Madrid. He was rightly hailed for his masterminded victory at Anfield on Sunday, but one cannot bask in the praise without expecting criticism.

On Sunday, Chelsea's resilience was startlingly successful, but against Atletico we saw the limitations of such a system, namely that it relies on a near-perfect defensive performance. That is exactly what Chelsea provided against Liverpool, seven fouls conceded in 90 minutes and not a single error made by any member of the back five.

For 44 minutes on Wednesday, a repeat seemed likely, albeit against an opponent that understandably lacked the attacking ambition of Brendan Rodgers' side. Chelsea were disciplined and positionally perfect, committing just two fouls and restricting Atleti to just two Diego Costa shots, both blocked, the only real moment of danger coming from a looped fluke that sailed over Mark Schwarzer and off the frame of the goal.

Ten minutes before the break, Mourinho's hold over fate and determinism again seemed forceful. Cesar Azpilicueta, playing in an unusual right midfield role in order to guard against the attacking threat of Atletico left -back Filipe Luis, collected the ball after a piece of typically wonderful hassling from Willian. The Spaniard's cutback found Fernando Torres, who fired home via a Miranda deflection. A muted celebration, but a fervid atmosphere at Stamford Bridge.

Then, after 134 minutes of defensive flawlessness, finally a mistake. In fact, like the buses that have been discussed to the point of tedium over the last few days, the errors came three at once. A hopeful ball was floated in from the left, Schwarzer dallied and Juanfran was able to turn the ball back across the edge of the six-yard box. Even then, both John Terry and Ashley Cole had opportunities to clear, but the former missed his kick and the latter inexplicably allowed it to pass uncleared. Adrian's finish gave Atleti the advantage.

"We never had Atletico in position where they had to chase the game," Mourinho admitted in his interview after the match. "We had that for ten minutes but let it go."

That is the principal problem with playing as Chelsea have over the last two matches, their 'clean sheet first' mentality - it gives you very little scope for changing up the gears. An entire gameplan was undermined by one example of defensive shoddiness, and from that moment on Chelsea were left looking bereft of ideas. Samuel Eto'o was introduced as Mourinho chose to go with two up front, but the striker's first act of note was to clumsily trip Diego Costa in the box. Tie over.

Mourinho bemoaned Thibaut Courtois' save from John Terry's header shortly before Atleti's second, but it was one of just two saves the Belgian was forced to make before stoppage time. That's simply not sufficient for a side requiring a goal to qualify.

"Next season we hope it will be better," was the Portuguese's post-match promise. "But I'm happy with the players. I am proud of all of them." Mourinho, of course, has his self-created excuse. His 'little horse' analogy from the beginning of February was intended to relieve pressure in the title race, but also to lay the groundwork for an excuse should failure occur.

"It is two horses and a little horse that still needs milk and to learn how to jump. It is a nice horse. A horse that next season we can race."

Well, failure has now occurred, of that there is no doubt, and Mourinho's eggs are now firmly placed in next season's basket. He is a man and manager that thrives on pressure, but that will now be turned up to 11.

That's the problem with aiming to relieve the heat in the short-term - it sure raises the stakes thereafter.

Daniel Storey - Follow him on Twitter.

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