If Chelsea are going to stumble every time they face a former Blue then Roman Abramovich’s much desired Champions League title may once again prove beyond reach. Ex-Chelsea legend Gianfranco Zola helped guide his West Ham outfit to a 1-1 draw at Upton Park, denying Chelsea of a formulaic three points.
If the emotional and eagerly anticipated return of fellow fans’ favourite Jose Mourinho is going to have a similar impact on proceedings, then Chelsea’s chance of Champions League glory may elude them as early as the first knockout stage. A tough draw against Inter Milan will be a huge test and Abramovich will demand a special performance against the special one. The real dilemma for Chelsea, however, lies in Didier Drogba. The centre-forward has been at the forefront of everything brilliant for the Blues this season but it seems that when the Ivorian isn’t performing, neither is the team. In such a narrow system, it is fundamental that the striker performs in order for the rest of the team to function. Although the experienced striker did present glimpses of superiority against West Ham, including a Marco van Basten-esque volley which flew inches wide, the powerhouse failed to create chances and seemed to be tamed quite handsomely by the inexperienced James Tomkins.
Michael Ballack was to blame for a series of careless fouls, having a frustrating game in the protective role in front of the back four. The midfielder was also poor at keeping possession, appearing uncomfortable dealing with the constant pressure offered by the relentless West Ham midfield. Florent Malouda went missing yet again and was often wasteful with his passing. The pair have clearly failed to adapt to the velocity of the English Premier League and have struggled to keep good form on a regular basis. With Salomon Kalou and Malouda departing at the interval, Chelsea looked a lot more threatening, with summer signing Yuri Zhirkov impressing on a rare outing. Daniel Sturridge is another summer purchase yet to fulfil his potential, with Carlo Ancelotti favouring fellow youngsters Gael Kakuta and Fabio Borini. However, the former Manchester City trainee was full of promise, disrupting the West Ham backline and earning the penalty that Frank Lampard fired home.
Despite making half-time changes, Ancelotti resisted a system alteration and the game maintained its tight, compact style. Lampard did not conjure up many opportunities to exert his long-range passing capabilities but he did warm Robert Green’s hands early on with a stinging shot. Chelsea, however, need to be able to exercise a plan B, especially when Drogba fails to fire. Reshaping to include genuine wingers may have drawn Scott Parker and Mark Noble out wide and created holes for Lampard and Joe Cole to capitalise on. This eluded Ancelotti, however, and the Hammers’ gritty midfield dominated. Zhirkov, Malouda, Cole, Kalou and Kakuta, to name a few, are a number of naturally suited wide players, yet their abilities are restricted by the manager’s insistence to consign them to unfamiliar roles. This is not to say the diamond formation is irrational – it has played a key role in sustaining top position in both the League and Champions League. The chief problem is the reluctance to abandon the formation when it’s been countered by the opposition. Changes to both system and personnel have already been proven to catch opponents off-guard elsewhere this season – Sam Allardyce’s bold decision to introduce two strikers at half-time and seeing his Blackburn side comeback to beat Portsmouth, proving a noteworthy example.
Chelsea should not have lacked motivation against West Ham as they could have increased their lead to six points at the top, after Manchester United’s make-shift defence was comfortably pulled apart by an in-form Fulham side. Nonetheless, they must make amends by beating Birmingham in the Boxing Day tie, where Chelsea’s formidable away form will be well tested by Birmingham’s recent impressive home run. With the hectic Christmas schedule approaching, a number of key players heading to the African Cup of Nations in the New Year and a host of superstars rumoured to be on their January wish list, the next month will probably be the most important in Chelsea’s pursuit for domestic supremacy.