Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Chelsea Retro: Air of Invincibility Shattered

Here's a little look back at something I wrote at the end of March 2006 reviewing Chelsea's then poor form and looking at our prospects for the rest of the season. Interesting reading in hindsight:

In recent weeks, Chelsea has had some bad results. We’ve not been playing well for a long time, in fact the only decent performance of 2006 was in the FA Cup v Everton. Chelsea haven’t really been playing well consistently since we beat Bolton in the league back in the autumn. Yes, we’ve put together a run of 10 successive victories in that time, but nevertheless even during that run we never really were playing great football. But at the time it didn’t matter, we were still getting results and didn’t look like getting beaten.

Last season’s achievement and the sheer scale of it – records broken aplenty, only losing one game – gave us an air of invincibility coming into this season. Teams were sent out to stop us scoring, rather than to attack us and defeat us. Teams were looking for draws if they were lucky. We beat Barcelona 4-2 at home and looked unbeatable.

That form carried on into the start of this season. At one point our defence was so good they were having bets on us not conceding a goal all season and one tabloid newspaper was offering a reward for the first person to score past us. People were afraid of us, and there was talk of us not losing a game all season and in fact winning all our games. Of course these were probably unrealistic expectations, but people were saying these sorts of things about us.

How things change. Until Middlesbrough away it looked like a coast to the title, we would have it wrapped up by early April or even the end of March. We didn’t think we could lose a game. Then we lost to Middlesbrough 3-0 playing very poorly. Barcelona knocked us out of the Champions League after a combination of a refereeing decision and a poor away performance at the Nou Camp. The criticism that surrounded it – not enough flair or creativity, no world-class finisher, poor tactics, were heavy. The media laid into Mourinho in the way they had wanted to ever since he came to Chelsea and proclaimed himself “the special one”. They talked of Mourinho being a moaner, ungracious, a bad loser and not as special as he thought. Of course this criticism continued after the win at West Brom where Chelsea players and Mourinho were criticised for their behaviour, completely ignorant of the Bryan Robson swearing and shouting and his players’ intimidation of the referee. More criticism.

Then came Sunday and what was expected to be a stroll against Fulham, who were conceding goals like nobody’s business. The end result was a poor performance by Chelsea, especially in the first half, and a bit of bad luck giving us a third defeat of the season. Now there are articles springing up in the papers about how Newcastle threw away their 12 point lead in 1996. People are starting to ask ‘Will Mourinho do a Keegan?’ Even Chelsea fans themselves are starting to question some of the managers’ decisions, which could have been regarded as heresy only a few months ago. Suddenly teams are now going to start fancying their chances against us. People now think we’re beatable if you attack us and put the pressure on the midfield. The fear factor is fast disappearing.

However, I believe this could work to our advantage. Last season not many people expected us to win the league at the beginning. Even when we were five points clear many expected us to implode. The expectations from outside were nowhere near as high as this season. The same may start happening now. Teams may think they have a chance against us or underestimate us.

Will Jose and Chelsea ‘do a Keegan / Newcastle’? I have my doubts. We are made of sterner stuff and have a manager who has won three league titles already. His confidence is unshakeable and his man-management flawless. The one-hour team meeting at the training ground, which didn’t even happen after the Boro’ game, is a good sign that they are determined to put things right and will be doing all they can to do so. Knowing the temperament of this Chelsea team they will respond in the way Champions do, but putting together a great run to the end of the season.

We now have something to prove again. Last season we needed to prove we could win the league and silence the doubters. This season we now need to silence those doubters, those sceptics in the media, those who try and put us down, by finishing the season in style. By winning our next five games in the league so only a draw against either Blackburn or Man Utd (depending on whether we reach the FA Cup semi-finals) will give us the title. By going unbeaten to the end of the season and win our first ever double. Only then will that air of invincibility we held for so long begin to return.

What actually happened:
Chelsea won the league title with a 3-0 thrashing of so-called title rivals Man Utd at Stamford Bridge with goals from William Gallas, Joe Cole and Ricardo Carvalho. Wayne Rooney got the injury that almost put him out of the World Cup. They also lost in the Semi-Finals of the FA Cup to eventual winners Liverpool. In the summer they signed Michael Ballack, Andriy Shevchenko and Ashley Cole and after ten games of the this season are joint top on points with Man Utd in the Premiership and top of their Champions League group after three games, with three wins - including defeating the reigning European Champions Barcelona 1-0 at Stamford Bridge with a superb performance. The air of invinciblity is now returning.