It all looked so easy on Sunday. Despite losing the titanic battle for possession and corners, Chelsea garnered enough wherewithall to dismiss title rivals Arsenal 2-0, moving solidly to the top of the table. Arsenal were dead and buried; United were still walking their admittedly impressive tightrope, though never far away from collapsing around a broken Rooney metatarsal – heck, even John Terry was getting praised for his performance.
Less than a week later, whilst still top of the table, the roof is possibly starting to collapse on the house that Carlo rearranged: Mr Chelsea is in Dubai trying to stop Mrs Chelsea leaving him; their leftback – their only left back who isn’t a right back or a left winger; their leftback who has provided a lot of their width; their leftback who has turned games consistently with his brilliance… is out for the rest of the season; oh yeah, and they are just one point clear of United, just six clear of Arsenal, at the top of the league after another awful away performance, this time at Everton. Sure, they may push Zhirkov to left back and muddle through until the end of the season – the Russian is not a bad left back, just nowhere near as good as Cole on current form – but with the toughest run-in of the challengers (away trips to United, Spurs, Liverpool – should be fun in the penultimate game of the season – as well as a home game against Aston Thriller, with the best defence in the league) their challenge may well come apart at the seams.
For one, since Drogba’s return, and Anelka’s reassignment to his wishy-washy-sort-of-a-winger-but-cut-in-and-miss-chances right flank role, the Frenchman’s performances have nosedived. He has been at his most productive up front in a two with the Ivorian – or on his own up top in his absence - but the one-paced nature of the midfield (without Essien – Ballack, Lampard, Mikel and Deco are all on the slow side of ‘ponderous’) means that a centre forward has to be sacrificed, if only to prevent the rest of team collapsing (and Ancelotti wouldn’t dare drop Drogba, surely). Joe Cole has been hit and miss since his return (and hasn’t sorted his contract situation) meaning that Anelka is picked on the basis of his centre forward form, rather than his suitability for the position. Florent Malouda has been very good this season, but there is only so much that one man can do in an increasingly disjointed team – and the Frenchman is hardly the man to carry a side like Rooney has done for United. This is certainly the situation away from home in the last two games, where Chelsea’s defensive problems against well directed high crosses, physically strong centre forwards as well as set pieces (Cech’s poor form has improved a little, but not enough and Terry has been run into the ground by Altidore and Saha in successive away games) have been ruthlessly exploited by both home managers. Previously, Chelsea were only bad at set pieces; a week ago they were struggling to hold off Hull City’s advances, and yesterday they could not stop an Everton side missing its most consistent midfielders.
Yet, they are still top of the league, if only just. United’s problems have not been solved by a decent 10-man draw at Villa, Arsenal have an easier run-in but are still playing catch up with a team exposed as defensively fragile to the counterattack. At home, Chelsea have been superb – they may have been just clinical against Arsenal, but they were previously unbelievable at the Bridge: 7-2 against Sunderland, 3-0 against Birmingham, both without their most important attacking threat. They may be a shambles away from home (1 win in 7 is simply abysmal for a team at the top of the table), but no-one else is suggesting that they will run away with it – the only ‘run away with it’ team was Chelsea before their recent poor away form – implying that the Blues from the Bridge may still, just about, have enough to seal the title from here. Their lead is hanging by a thread, their leftback is out for the rest of the season (it could derail their whole campaign, unless Zhirkov steps up) but they are still on for a conceivable treble. They are definitely still the team to stop in the league, at least.