Monday, January 22, 2007

Chelsea Send Out Distress Message

The beginning of the end for Jose? United lose their nerve 'ten minutes from title'? Liverpool as realistic title contenders? Arsenal too, maybe?

Trying to interpret the messages from Grand Slam weekend is almost like being in a NASA laboratory attempting to decipher what appears to be a communication from another planet: behind all the white noise and static, what does it say?
With just seven minutes to go in yesterday's match at the Emirates Stadium (which will have felt more like home for Arsenal fans than at any time since the move from Highbury, thanks to the memorable manner of their victory) the interpretation seemed clear: Manchester United were surely champions.
In a match of few clear-cut chances, they looked to have edged out one of their biggest rivals with the type of gritty performance usually seen as the hallmark of title-winners. Arsenal had rarely seriously threatened Edwin Van der Saar's goal, and with the clock ticking down, United looked to be effectively closing out a priceless win.

Three rare things - two whipped-in Arsenal crosses from wide and one Thierry Henry header - later and the champions-elect handed back their de facto crown.
Review and revise: United fumbled their big chance? Bottled it by shrinking back into defence of their lead?
Of course not. A draw would have been an appropriate result, the win flattering an Arsenal team who never imposed their game on the opposition. Certainly United attempted to close the game down from too far out, leaving themselves vulnerable to a team whose bite comes from many potential sources. But United were generally more impressive yesterday than in defeat to Arsenal at Old Trafford last September and remain the most convincing candidates for the title at this point.
It could be argued that they are flat-track bullies, having taken only four points from twelve in meetings with their main rivals this season. But in a league where the vast majority of the clubs resemble bespectacled playground weeds, the bully is king.
No, pretty much the only clear message coming out of the weekend whose hype was, for once, almost matched by the excitement on the pitch, was that the conflict between Chelsea's manager and their owner has reached a grave point, such that the team is unrecognisable from that which won the last two league titles.

The sources of the disagreement are well known: Jose Mourinho's frustration at the club's lack of transfer activity at a time when their defensive resources have been stripped bare; and the resentment caused by the failed signature of Andrij Shevchenko: from Roman Abramovich's viewpoint in the manager's inability to integrate him, and from Mourinho's due to the striker's favoured relationship with the owner.

The nature of this feud is cancerous, so malign are the attitudes of both sides. Mourinho's team were so obviously infected by their manager's defeatism before the game at Anfield on Saturday, that one almost suspected their feebleness to be planned. It's testament to our belief in anything being possible when it comes to Mourinho that we could consider him sending out his team to lose, so as to illustrate his point to Abramovich.

But in effect, even if not purposely, that is what his negative attitude succeeded in doing. Rather than attemting to inspire his team to an heroic triumph against the odds, Mourinho's side had all the fight of lemmings approaching a cliff-top.

This becomes the most significant point to emerge from the weekend because - unlike the other three top sides, who demonstrated at least aspects of their best qualities - Chelsea appeared utterly stripped of what made them the best team in England. The loss of such strength of spirit and unity of purpose is vastly more difficult to redress than mere bad form.

Perhaps the return of John Terry from injury could re-instill these lost virtues. But the salving of the wounds of an entire club would seem beyond any one player, no matter how influential.

The fragile but powerful balance of egos between Mourinho and Abramovich which made Chelsea so strong, so quickly, has been wildly disrupted, and the mess that has resulted on the field does not remotely resemble a championship winning team.

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