By Jay Jaffa
As Eden Hazard’s gorgeous left-footed shot whistled into the top corner of Asmir Begovic’s goal, you could be forgiven for thinking you were watching a team gunning for the Premier League title. That, of course, is what many expected of the European champions after millions were lavished upon the squad in the summer, yet their form on the road gives a false impression of a side unsettled at home under new management.
It is as much the fault of Roman Abramovich as it is Fernando Torres, the home support and the plucky opponents that refuse to yield to the Blues at Stamford Bridge. New manager Rafa Benitez has been given a tough ride since assuming control of the first team after Roberto Di Matteo was cruelly axed, but that is unlikely to have the Chelsea decision-makers drizzle sympathy on the unpopular Spaniard.
While it has been common to watch Chelsea strut around stadia up and down the country, flexing their creative muscles and revelling in the glut of goals they craft, home results have fallen well short of expectations. Yet the swagger which Oscar, Hazard, Juan Mata & Co. have displayed suggests the side are on the brink of reaching the level set by the two Manchester clubs.
The 4-0 win over Stoke was another demonstration of the enviable quality the Blues can boast and the margin of victory should not be glossed over. The Potters were touted in some circles as having the fortitude to ambush the top six after a resurgent end to 2012 saw them embark on a 10-game unbeaten run. But it was their form at the Britannia Stadium – which had seen them go 17 matches without defeat, almost a calendar year – that had them cast as the league’s most formidable home team.
In putting four past Tony Pulis’ normally watertight backline, Chelsea again head back to west London in buoyant mood – in much the same way as their 5-1 FA Cup win over Southampton, their 5-1 Capital One Cup win over Leeds and their 2-1 win at Everton boosted confidence. The common theme (aside from the Leeds victory) was that each was followed by defeat at Stamford Bridge.
It is no longer an anomaly, it is a trend. Like an adulterous male, Chelsea have fun away and cannot perform at home. If you ignore the 8-0 and 6-1 thrashings of borderline pub sides Aston Villa and Nordsjaelland, Benitez is drowning at Stamford Bridge. Since he took charge on November 21, his side have failed to score in the other four games. Manchester City, Fulham, QPR and Swansea have all kept the Blues’ attack at bay, even stealing victory in the latter two cases.
Benitez moved to address the problems as he spoke to reporters in Stoke: “The away team is waiting, deep, compact so it’s not easy to find the space,” he explained. “When you play away the other team is coming against you, you have more space and the level of our players and the movement they’ve got it’s difficult to manage them.”
Interestingly, Benitez made no reference to the portion of home support still insistent on booing his presence in the Chelsea dugout. There is a stale, even malicious, atmosphere at Stamford Bridge, that usually starts with the 16th minute ode to Di Matteo, supported by the half-time interval of boos, and crescendoed by chants of ‘We don’t want you here’. All the while the Frank Lampard backing track of ‘Sign him up’ adds a further element of unease.
Yet the 52-year-old has responded defiantly, arguing that he presides over a happy, united squad: “The players are happy, believe me they are happy, the atmosphere inside is really good. We cannot control what is going on outside the pitch.”
So if the poisonous atmosphere is yet to permeate the squad, what is preventing Chelsea competing at the top of the table? Eradicating the mistakes and sharpening their final-third play, according to Benitez: “Obviously you have to be more precise and sometimes if the other team is doing a good job in defence you will make more mistakes.”
The former Liverpool manager makes it sound more like a puzzle waiting to be solved, than an inherent problem. After all, he isn’t the first manager made to feel unwelcome after taking a job, and he’s certainly not the first to plod through a sticky patch of form.
He also has a point when assessing the opposition. With the exception of Manchester City, the three most recent teams to visit Stamford Bridge are bottom-half teams set up to hold what they have. Chelsea’s attack is still finding its rhythm, still bonding, and that is exacerbated by having a new manager with new ideas.
There is also the Torres question, namely: why is he playing? With Demba Ba’s movement, athleticism and predatory instincts, Chelsea now possess a striker capable of leading their attack. Where they had no focal point when Torres started, there is now a reference for which the team can build before they slice through defences.
Benitez perhaps summed up the club’s situation best, concluding: “We are scoring more goals than in the past, we are conceding half of the goals the team were conceding in the past and we have more balance.” Unfortunately for Benitez, all the goals are coming on the road, meaning fixing the home malaise will be the difference between enjoying success or failure this year. On a personal level, it will decide whether he has a job in west London next season.