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Saturday, Dec. 13, 2008
Chelsea's air of invincibility a thing of the past
LONDON — By no stretch of the imagination could Luiz Felipe Scolari be called a failure as Chelsea manager.
At the same time, the man who led Brazil to World Cup glory six years ago has not been the success his profile (and salary) suggested.
The jury has yet to reach a majority verdict.
Results-wise Chelsea is less effective than it was last season under Avram Grant, but even the Israeli would be hard pressed to argue he was a better manager than Big Phil, whatever the stats say.
Under Jose Mourinho and Grant, Chelsea grounds out results, occasionally raising pulses, but the Blues were generally more effective than entertaining, pragmatic rather than pretty.
The air of invincibility that Chelsea carried before it over the past few years has gone; suddenly it is vulnerable and opponents are no longer intimidated by the reputation John Terry and company carry with them.
They have missed the spine of the side — Ricardo Carvalho, one of the most intelligent and influential defenders in the world, has been injured for much of the season.
Michael Essien, a one-man wrecking machine in midfield with attacking skill to match his defensive strength, is a long-term absentee after a knee operation.
Didier Drogba, so hard to stop and equally hard to like, has spent more time on the treatment table than the pitch.
Yet their absence alone does not explain Chelsea's inconsistency.
Stamford Bridge had not witnessed a home defeat in four years, yet in recent weeks Liverpool and Arsenal, plus Burnley in the League Cup, have put Chelsea to the sword.
On Tuesday, last season's beaten finalists struggled at times to overcome a Cluj team making its debut in the Champions League, Drogba coming on as a substitute and scoring a sublime winner to give the home side a 2-1 victory.
Blues captain John Terry said: "We've got a lot of work to do if we are going to go all the way. We have to up our game because things have not been clicking. The fans know we can do a lot better but let's not panic yet."
Chelsea plays West Ham on Sunday and Drogba's impressive half-hour against the Romanian champions has given Scolari the sort of selection problem managers say they like, but in reality don't because they have a disgruntled player on their hands.
Nicolas Anelka has been by far Chelsea's best player this season, scoring 15 goals, 13 of which have come in the Premier League where he is five clear in the scoring charts.
Anelka and Drogba have started only two games together since the France international arrived at Stamford Bridge from Bolton last January, and Scolari admitted he is still undecided about whether to use them as a pair.
"It is my job to either put the two strikers together or to choose which player is better for Chelsea," he said. "Drogba is very important, one of the best strikers in the world, but I need to think about Anelka. He is as important."
The players would prefer Drogba, who has a physical presence to unsettle any defense. A pity he has not so much a chip but a sack of potatoes on his shoulder, the Ivorian walking through the media mixed zone after the Cluj game without even looking at let alone speaking to any journalist.
He is upset the Football Association banned him for three games for throwing a coin back at Burnley fans and just as managers blame referees for defeat, Drogba seems to think the press was somehow responsible for his suspension.
The game against West Ham sees the return to Stamford Bridge of a true Chelsea legend and, despite being manager of the opposition, Gianfranco Zola will be given a goose-bump inducing standing ovation by the Chelsea faithful, who marveled at the Italian's skills during his career with the Blues.
It is difficult to find anyone with anything bad to say about Zola apart from West Ham fans who resent someone with Chelsea connections managing their club.
The East Enders are stuck in a time warp, believing only someone with West Ham connections is qualified to be in charge of the Hammers.
Zola could hardly have chosen a more testing environment or time to make his managerial debut. Apart from the geographical negativity from some West Ham supporters, the club is a mess both on and off the pitch.
The home defeat by Tottenham saw West Ham in 16th position, just above the relegation zone. Perhaps more worryingly is that owner Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson's holding firm Hansa is going into administration after a loss of £230 million caused by the collapse of Iceland's Landsbanski.
There is ongoing litigation involving Sheffield United about the Carlos Tevez affair, which could cost West Ham as much as £30 million.
Zola has too many highly-paid underachievers in the side but his options are limited. The suspicion is that sooner rather than later West Ham is going to be hit by a financial hammer (excuse the pun) which will rip the heart out of the club.
West Brom lacks the necessary quality to survive in the Premier League, and at the moment West Ham is a good bet to be one of the two other teams to be relegated with the Baggies.
It is a completely brainless act which only benefits the opposition.
Eboue's recent displays as he returned from injury have hardly been helped by the jeering from Arsenal fans, so the regulars at Emirates Stadium are reducing the effectiveness of the team they have paid good money to support.
Boo an opposition player by all means. Boo all of them if you are that way inclined. But to boo one of your own strikes me as probably the most senseless act a fan can carry out, however expensive the admission price is.
Christopher Davies covers the Premier League for the London Daily Telegraph.