A week and a bit into the new season the league table makes pleasant reading for Chelsea. Their total of nine points from three games is guaranteed to keep them ahead of the big cheeses until they come back from Monaco.
They have also beaten and kept a clean sheet against Newcastle United, but if we start calling Chelsea title challengers, we might be getting ahead of ourselves.
Beating last season’s relegation favourites Wigan and newly promoted Reading are not titanic achievements for a Champions League team; much less so when they came about in a laboured and generally uninspiring fashion. And the brilliance of Eden Hazard, who has started the season wonderfully, masked the weaknesses about the Stamford Bridge outfit quite well, because from an overly volatile owner down to the reserve goalkeeper, Chelsea do not have the means to be serious contenders.
I find it hard not to like Roberto Di Matteo. He was charming, if incompetent, at West Brom and now he’s charming, if a bit less incompetent, at Chelsea. I also find it hard to argue that he shouldn’t have been given the full time Chelsea job; he won the Champions League, and you can’t let a manager go the week after he’s done that, at least not on a moral ground.
However, if parking the bus and hoping for penalties will sometimes win you the Champions League (where were you in Istanbul?), it is a sure way of not winning the league. Unfortunately, apart from a drubbing of Tottenham in the other cup semi-final, this is the only trick that Di Matteo has shown us.
True, he has other qualities off the pitch. He can keep the players happy and he gets along with the press and everyone in the world. He is a really lovely guy, and I feel bad calling him incompetent, but a smash-and-grab approach to the games against last season’s table toppers will probably have a worse return than Manchester United’s Class A shares. And as that frightful April afternoon has shown us, it is these games that mattered last season, and there’s really no indication that this is about to change.
Factor alongside this his boss’ whims, which turn with the wind, and three defeats later we could have another wasted season and Frank Lampard as interim boss.
Player power and lack of quality
Actually that wouldn’t be such a bad idea since it would keep the vice-captain off the pitch some of the time. I have nothing but admiration for Lampard’s qualities as a player; he has everything you could have asked of a modern midfielder in 2005. Unfortunately he cannot mask his redundant role in the team with well taken penalties.
The playmaking abilities of Mata and an increasingly influential Mikel mean that Chelsea should by-pass the former box-to-boxer, and it would probably be better for the team if the more incisive and unpredictable Meireles came in. But Di Matteo wouldn’t want to do that too often.
At the back Chelsea have more problems. Getting over Cech’s occasional gaffes, apart from John Terry, who magically remains imperious, there are holes all over the place. Ivanovic is a slow red card waiting to happen, Gary Cahill has not returned to his early-days Bolton form and Ashley Cole is desperately past it. Watching him try to deal with McCleary last week was comically painful. As for David Luiz… it’s best if I leave any description to Gary Neville.
Further up the pitch, one injury prone 50m striker is not the same as two ordinary 25m forwards. And it wouldn’t take much for Di Matteo to have to carve an attacker out of stone. Sturridge may be happy to swap the wing for the main job, but how happy would anyone be having him there?
The point that I’m laboriously trying to make is that apart from Eden Hazard’s wizardry I really don’t see much for Chelsea fans to be optimistic about. A lack of quality in defence, odd selection policies revolving around a dinosaur in midfield and a lack of depth in attack are not going to earn much silver.
Too many games
Ah, there it is ‘lack of depth’. After all, doesn’t everyone say Barcelona has the same problem? Well, yes. But Chelsea isn’t Barcelona. I can’t see a Messi or a Mascherano. And it would be fine to go through a normal season relying on more or less the same eleven. The blokes at Chelsea are fit enough to steer clear of niggling injuries and the rest is luck.
But consider that with the Club World Championship somewhere in Middle Earth, the European Super Cup and decent cup runs, Chelsea’s players could well end up playing 60-odd games not counting internationals. It was the same problem Barcelona encountered last season when they ‘only’ won the Copa del Rey an year on from so convincingly winning the Champions League. And can you count on Torres to bang them in for 60 matches or the smash-and-grab to work in each and every big game?