Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Mourinho's men wipe away recent blues

With Manchester United and the world at large breathing heavily down their necks, Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea showed they are made of the right stuff in yesterday’s London derby at home to West Ham, rescuing what looked a shaky position early on to win comfortably and loosen the noose around their throats.

A goal and a man down only 15 minutes in and with Manchester United almost within touching distance, this was as stiff a test as Chelsea have faced in the premier league this season and they passed with flying colours, finishing empathic 4-1 victors and re-confirming their favouritism for the title.

Make no mistake, a team of pretenders would have crumbled if faced by the same predicament as Mourinho’s men, but this team proved they are the real deal, full of character.

With Manchester United only seven points adrift in the race for the title after the worse run in Mourinho’s two years at the helm and with Alex Ferguson’s men hosting Arsenal only a few hours later, the Blues entered this match knowing they couldn’t afford any more slip-ups.

While publicly the manager made light of the situation, hinting he was more concerned about the potential of catching bird-flu, privately he would have recognised that another blemish would have given further impetus to the hard chasing United, unbeaten in the premiership since the first day of February.

As much could be told about the urgency of the situation by Mourinho’s team selection, moving dramatically away from the wide formula that has proved so successful over the past two seasons but has looked stale in the past month or so as teams have worked out that if you stop Frank Lampard and Claude Makelele, you stop the supply to the wide men.

Out went the likes of Joe Cole, Damien Duff and Arjen Robben as Mourinho ditched his 4-3-3 and reverted to the traditional English 4-4-2 formula, partnering strikers Didier Drogba and Hernan Crespo in the starting 11 for the first time.

The midfield trio of Lampard, Nuno Maniche and Michael Essien, all nominally central players, were placed in a tight line behind the strikers and screened by Makelele. It was a narrow template, but clearly designed to shake up his own men and throw a spanner into the works of the opposition, who’s manager Alan Pardew could not have expected such a move.

From a tactical perspective, Mourinho would have reasoned that he needed to get more support and supply to his front men, and this system would allow each of the midfield trio of Lampard, Maniche and Essien, all willing runners, to spring forward and support the front two.

In the first few moments it seemed that Chelsea were the team struggling with the change in formation. A goal down after James Collins profited from some lax marking at a corner, they were soon reduced to 10 men when Maniche dived in recklessly on Lionel Scaloni.

In truth, these incidents seemed to enliven the hosts who were soon spraying passes, hitting the crossbar and showing an appetite that has been lacking since being bundled out of Europe by Barcelona. Drogba, in particular, seemed keen to silence his recent detractors and turned on wonderful display, scoring the first from a sublime Lampard first time ball, before laying on the second for Crespo.

Anyone who switched on from the 20 minute mark would barely have recognised Chelsea were a man down. With Drogba dropping deeper to help the midfield and the two fullbacks, Asier Del Horno on the left and Geremi on the right pressing forward to lend a hand, Chelsea were in total control and barely looked threatened.

As hungry as the champions were to maintain status quo in the premiership race, West Ham’s display can only be described as pedestrian, both in desire on the pitch and reaction in the dugout.

When Chelsea were reduced to 10 men, the obvious move was for Pardew to push Marlon Harewood up front, alongside Dean Ashton, but by maintaining the 4-5-1, all he did was invite Chelsea forward, an offer they gleefully accepted.

By the time the move came after the break, Chelsea had regained the confident and destructive swagger that had been their trademark under Mourinho, with the two centre backs John Terry and William Gallas soon helping themselves to goals.

While Ferguson’s men kept up the pressure a short time later with their ninth straight premiership win, Chelsea will know that the destiny of the title remains with them.

The big test will likely come at the end of the month, when they host Rooney, Ronaldo, Ruud and Co., a game that could seal Mourinho’s fourth title in as many seasons, the first two of which came at Porto.

For now he can rest content in the knowledge that, on this showing, his men are clearly up for the challenge of retaining their title.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Pinuts Pethia said...

Even though West Ham went a goal up, they played poorly. To cop two goals from central defenders is unacceptable. West Ham displayed no imagination and were content in sitting back and allowing the opposition to dictate play. Best game for Drogba in a blue shirt. He was playing as a striker, midfielder and defender. Lets see how they go against United!

Tue. Apr. 11, 11:13:00 am AEST  
Anonymous pele said...

i whole-heartedly agree with pinuts. the hammers were 'nailed'

Tue. Apr. 11, 11:52:00 am AEST  
Blogger The Round Ball Analyst said...

Pinuts,

Agree totally that West Ham were bereft of any real intent or ideas. Perhaps it's the fact that they're camped in the relative safety of the midtable, with no relegation concerns.

One would have thought that the potential carrot of a Uefa or Intertoto Cup spot would inspire them, but instead they went cautious, trying to protect their early advantage, unlikely against such a motivated Chelsea.

Will be very interesting to if the Blues can beat Bolton and Everton, and set up a showdown with Man U. I agree with Fergie that Chelsea have the tougher run home, but Chelsea have the points advantage and it would be a major shock if they let that slip....

Even if they did slip up the odd game, Man U would probably need to win their remaining five games, on the back of already winning 9 on the trot, do you think they can?

In any case, from a neutral perspective, its just great to see some interest in a title race we thought was previously over. The same in Serie A, Milan narrowed the gap on the weekend, so there's some interest there also, same in Germany with Bremen thumping Bayern.

Tue. Apr. 11, 02:35:00 pm AEST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoyed seeing Chelsea bounce back after some poor showings against Barcelona, Middlesborough and Fulham.

Over the duration of the season they have been the most consistent team and deserve to retain their title. I agree with your article and the above comments that Drogba was excellent, if only he always played with such a determined mood.

I read some interesting comments from Mateja Kezman saying that he learnt a bit from Mourinho about tactics but he didnt really like him as a person. Chelsea aren't the most popular team around, but they I agree that Mourinho's tactics were spot on in this game.

Tue. Apr. 11, 08:58:00 pm AEST  

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