Chelsea Are Beginning To Look Ominous

Two points off top despite consistently failing to find their stride, Chelsea look dangerous. Plus, first to fifth for Liverpool and Arsenal winning whilst playing badly...

Last Updated: 30/12/13 at 14:36 Post Comment

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Winners


Chelsea and Jose Mourinho
There is something ominous about Chelsea sitting only two points behind Arsenal at the half-way stage despite failing to reach their previous standards in Mourinho's second coming. That the Blues' three defeats this season have come against teams outside the title race raises doubts about their credentials, but there is an argument that they have shown the greatest ability to adapt thus far.

In grinding out dull draws against Manchester United and Arsenal - as well as the hard-earned point at Tottenham - Chelsea have shown that their former resolve hasn't completely disintegrated following some nervy defensive displays. They came close to a third victory in succession at the Emirates through a counter-attacking system that also saw off Schalke in impressive fashion in the Champions League, but Mourinho changed his approach for the meeting with Liverpool when the Blues were required to press more readily.

By starting David Luiz in midfield - a selection he previously opposed - the Portuguese emphasised his tactical flexibility as Chelsea dominated the battle in the middle. Even more important, however, were the roles of the trio behind Samuel Eto'o, as detailed in 16 Conclusions. Indeed, with Willian delivering his best performance for the Blues, Eden Hazard continuing his fine goalscoring form and Oscar fulfilling Mourinho's instructions to the letter, it is difficult to envisage how Juan Mata could have improved the first XI, even though we have previously expressed our exasperation at the Spaniard being sidelined.

The victories over Liverpool and Manchester City (which came somewhat fortuitously) have proved that Mourinho can meet attacking demands despite being hindered by a strikeforce that have mustered only six goals in a combined total of 33 appearances. And of course, there is a chance that Chelsea could splurge in January, with Falcao, Diego Costa and, oddly, Gonzalo Higuain all linked in recent weeks.

The Blues also possess an advantage in Mourinho's crafty approach to the big matches, with the manager playing his hand perfectly following the win over Liverpool. By suggesting that Brendan Rodgers is perhaps a little naive ("When I was Brendan's age...") and arguing that Luis Suarez should have been booked for diving, Mourinho's comments were clearly designed to grate, as were his claims that Arsenal are boring and love to cry following the draw at the Emirates. Getting underneath the skin of his opponents is something he has managed throughout his career and it's the competitive side of Mourinho we love to see.


Tom Huddlestone and Hull
A 6-0 win over Fulham that catapulted Hull into the top half with a better goal difference than Tottenham after 19 matches. They're still on -1, mind.

Tom Huddlestone was pivotal in the victory, as he has been all season following a £5million move from Spurs. Talk of an England call-up is somewhat far-fetched given the players currently ahead of Huddlestone in the pecking order, but he deserves enormous praise for his part in transforming the Tigers from relegation favourites to top-ten hopefuls.


Arsenal
"I think when you look at Arsenal they play fantastic football but you need to win games playing badly," said Patrick Vieira at the start of December. "I don't think Arsenal are capable of that at the moment."

Against Newcastle that notion was dispelled. It was always going to be difficult to beat a team brimming with confidence after seven wins in nine matches, but Arsenal toiled to a victory that puts them in top spot at the turn of the year after a remarkable 2013.

To win without Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil was also hugely encouraging, as was the return of Laurent Koscielny alongside Per Mertsesacker at the heart of defence. With Thomas Vermaelen marginalised for the past 12 months, Arsenal have shown far greater resolve at the back; Koscielny and Mertesacker forming the sort of understanding that can arouse title hopes.

It was not all positive on Sunday, however, with the Gunners still displaying signs of the fatigue that has worried Arsene Wenger in recent weeks. "I believe we had a difficult period just now but honestly that was mainly down to the schedule we had," said Wenger before the trip to Newcastle. "I think that the schedule was absolutely horrendous but we can show that in the future."

Title winners tend not to complain about exhaustion at this stage of the season, and nor do they rely on strikers of Olivier Giroud's calibre, with Nicklas Bendtner as back-up. Giroud may have scored on only the second occasion in 13 matches (three goals in total during that period) to secure the points against Newcastle, but he looked tired throughout and missed an easy chance to seal the win after Mathieu Debuchy had cleared off the line.

Both Arsenal and Chelsea need to find new strikers in January but if you had to bet that only one will meet that requirement, it would be the Blues. Wenger's faith in his squad is to be commended - and he has been rewarded handsomely this season, by Ramsey in particular - but we have seen in the past that it can also be to the detriment of Arsenal's trophy hopes.

There are also players within the squad who have yet to reach their best form this year, and that is an area on which the manager may prefer to focus. Ozil has been an extraordinary placebo thus far, lifting Arsenal to another level when he arrived in the summer but failing to find the consistency he displayed during his three years at Real Madrid.

If Wenger can eke more out of his record signing, as well as the underperforming Santi Cazorla, fears over a lack of attacking prowess should be eased. Only Liverpool and City have scored more than the Gunners at this stage, while Wenger was encouraged by his team's three goals against the latter, even though they came in a 6-3 defeat. "Quite amazingly, despite the fact we conceded goals, it was not all negative because we could have scored six as well, so on the offensive front we have shown that we have huge potential," he said.

There is of course the option of playing Theo Walcott, who was poor at Newcastle, or Lukas Podolski in the centre, neither of which is ideal but at least offers the opportunity for Giroud to have a much-needed break. That should be possible in forthcoming fixtures against Cardiff, Fulham and Crystal Palace at the Emirates, as well as Aston Villa away, when Wenger can aim to rotate his first XI with little impact on the club's title challenge.

There are reasons for both optimism and pessimism at the moment.


The Premier League
Only two points separate the top three, only three points separate fourth to seventh, and only four points separate the bottom six. If you like close-run things, there's plenty for you to enjoy in the Premier League this year.


Crystal Palace
Palace have shown enough to suggest that survival isn't beyond them, which is quite a miraculous achievement when you consider they were rock bottom with only three points after ten games. If Tony Pulis can strengthen the defence, midfield and attack in January, the Eagles will stand an even better chance of avoiding the drop.


Tottenham
Their biggest Premier League victory since the 4-0 thrashing of Aston Villa in December 2012. A central midfield of Mousa Dembele and Paulinho looked a lot more balanced than Boxing Day's partnership of Christian Eriksen and Lewis Holtby, and the former's first strike of the season should motivate him to try and improve that aspect of his game.


Everton
Bouncebackability. A term coined by Iain Dowie and crucial in Everton returning to the top four at Liverpool's expense.

Roberto Martinez backed his players to recover following the disappointing 1-0 defeat to Sunderland on Boxing Day, and his faith was fully repaid against Southampton. "In football you don't want to lose games but we can take a lot from the way we faced adversity," said Martinez after losing to Sunderland. "If you are going to lose a game the only thing you can do is learn from the situation and make sure we are stronger for the next game."

That Everton restored their lead within three minutes of Saints' equaliser on Sunday reinforces the spirit that Martinez alluded to as Romelu Lukaku shrugged of his recent goal drought to score for the first time in six appearances.

The experiment with Bryan Oviedo ahead of Leighton Baines on the left didn't exactly go to plan, but that is something Martinez may work on after insisting that Baines won't be allowed to leave in January.


Seamus Coleman
More goals than Christian Benteke, Samuel Eto'o, Edin Dzeko and Fernando Torres. More goals than Mesut Ozil and Southampton's £15million summer signing Dani Osvaldo. More goals than...ah, this could go on forever. He's scored five goals, and what a peach on Sunday.


Manchester United
I tried so very hard to be positive about United's win over Norwich in this reaction piece but as I dwell on their performance, I can't help but think I was being insincere.

After perfecting a false smile when unwrapping the unforgivable pyjamas Nanna bought me for Christmas, it appears I've allowed my mendacity to pollute my professionalism, and for that I can only apologise. Perhaps some can't handle the truth, but I can tell no lies in Winners Losers: the champions were dire on Saturday in another abject and unimaginative display.

But at least there's Danny Welbeck to cheer everyone up, with the striker scoring for the fourth time in five matches and now possessing a better shots-to-goals ratio than Luis Suarez in the Premier League, which means nothing but sounds great.

Also, the gap to Liverpool is only two points, so that's something to be pleased about, isn't it? Everything's coming up Milhouse.



Losers



Manuel Pellegrini
Here's some maths for you, Mr Pellegrini. Six changes = a 1-0 victory over a team with an 86% smaller expenditure in the summer.

Okay, you've got me, that wasn't maths at all. It was just a silly equation I wrote to make a tenuous point and giggle at Pellegrini messing up his sums earlier in the season.

"Ohhhhhh, they're all so tired," said Pellegrini about his team on Saturday. Or at least that's how he sounded after he complained of fatigue in one of the strongest squads in world football.

"We didn't have our team fresh and it is very difficult when just one team want to play and the other just wants to defend so that was the game we saw today."

Forgive me for asking, but what exactly were Palace supposed to do against a team that have scored more goals at home in the Premier League than 18 clubs have managed in total? And besides, the Eagles managed as many shots on target as City despite averaging just 24% possession.

Perhaps Pellegrini should worry about complacency within his own ranks rather than the tactics employed by City's opponents.


Liverpool
First at Christmas, fifth at New Year and now only two points above a resurgent (in terms of results, at least) Manchester United.

Liverpool's defeat to Chelsea has been covered at length in 16 Conclusions, which you can read here.


Cardiff and Sunderland
Lots of excitement but a draw that ultimately does little for either team's hopes of survival. And yes, I really am that miserable. And yes, I really did ask Nanna for the receipt.


West Ham
The sort of result that sees a team relegated, after the Hammers fought back to lead 3-2 against West Brom but conceded an equaliser immediately.

Sam Allardici's reliance on Kevin Nolan continued as he scored one and set up two on Saturday and the Hammers will hope this marks a turning point in the captain's season following his poor performances over the last four months.


Nicolas Anelka
There may be some ambiguity over the meaning of Anelka's celebration, but by claiming it was meant in support of his 'comedian friend Dieudonné', the striker has rightly drawn criticism.

As French journalist Julien Laurens wrote in The Telegraph on Sunday: 'The gesture is known as the 'Quenelle,' labelled as a reversed Nazi salute and made famous a few years ago by the controversial Dieudonné, a French comedian from African background.

'In the last few years, Dieudonné M'bala M'bala, his full name, has become an anti-Semitic activist and campaigner. Dieudonné used the Quenelle for the first time in 2009 when he was a candidate for the European elections at the helm of his own party, the anti-Zionist party, despite arguing that it was a generic anti-establishment symbol.'

Writing in Le Parisien at the weekend, the French home secretary, Manuel Valls, said that Dieudonné was "racist and (an) anti-Semitic who nobody finds funny anymore", as he outlined plans to ban the comedian's shows across the country.

Meanwhile, as photographs emerged online of people making the salute outside Holocaust memorials and synagogues, French sports minister Valérie Fourneyron released a statement to say the quenelle was an "incitation to racial hatred and sickening".

It appears that, at best, Anelka's celebration was incredibly ill-judged, and it leaves the FA facing a difficult decision. It is hard to imagine how they will decide the meaning of the striker's gesture when it can be perceived in different ways, but the situation would be made a lot easier if Anelka would take responsibility for his actions.

Given Dieudonné's reputation and previous convictions, it was a deplorable show of support. The same can be said for the immediate backing West Brom gave to their player when it was impossible for them to have fully ascertained the facts behind Anelka's gesture. What is wrong with waiting to make a full investigation into the incident before commenting?


Stoke
From top half at Christmas to 12th and a goal difference of -11 at New Year.

Matthew Stanger - he's on the Twitter

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