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Michael Essien Gets Real

Sad thoughts on my favorite player being loaned to Real Madrid

We’ll miss you too buddy…

So how ‘bout that UEFA Super Cup, huh?  Yeah.  Less said about that one the better.  Let’s just chalk it up to one of those days when the whole squad wakes up and forgets to play soccer in the actual soccer match.  Fortunately for Chelsea, it was a meaningless UEFA money-grubbing match.  I’ve never watched the Super Cup before and only tuned in this time because Chelsea was playing.  Well, sort of.  Atletico Madrid was playing; Chelsea was mostly watching Falcao score goals.

Meanwhile, I was completely distracted by the Friday transfer window deadline rumor that my favorite Chelsea player, Michael Essien, was about to be loaned to Real Madrid for the season.  Unfortunately it wasn’t just a rumor.  Essien is now on his way to play for his former coach Jose Mourinho.  I understand the business realities of big time soccer, but I am bitterly disappointed that Chelsea let Essien go.

Essien has been a favorite of Blues fans since Mourinho brought him to Chelsea from Lyon in 2005.  He was a vital component of Chelsea’s Premier League Championship winning teams of 2005/2006 and 2009/2010.  In pro sports it’s annoying how quickly pundits and club leadership tend to prematurely write off players.  I don’t feel like Essien has been given a fair (and well deserved) chance to earn back his regular starting spot since returning this past January from the second serious knee injury of his career.  I like Roberto Di Matteo, but my only major beef with his decision-making since he became Chelsea manager last spring has been his preference for Mikel over Essien.  I like Mikel, but Essien at full fitness is a better player.  Essien looked fantastic in the MLS All-Star game this summer.  I was really looking forward to seeing his first full season since the 2008/2009 campaign.  Now I feel cheated since he’s been available but rarely used during his last several months in a Chelsea uniform.

I’m not really sure what Chelsea is saying with this loan.  It’s a frustrating tease for Essien fans, because the club is leaving the door open for his possible return, but with so many new youngsters, that seems unlikely.  My prediction is that he’ll become the old Essien under Mourinho and kick some major tail in Madrid.  Come January, Mourinho will probably snap him up on a permanent basis.  Meanwhile Chelsea will still be wasting minutes on Raul Meireles.  It would make more sense for Chelsea to loan out someone like the 19-year-old Oscar, and get another solid 4-5 years out of Essien (he is still just 29 after all).

I’ve had an uneasy feeling for a long time that something like this might happen to Essien.  The only move away from Chelsea I’d ever be excited about is if he showed up on my doorstep as an FC Dallas Designated Player.  But that’s never going to happen.  First Drogba, now Essien.  It seems the Chelsea brass are conspiring to ship out all my favorite Blues.  Who’s next?  Lampard?

Chelsea has a good team this season.  They would have a better one if Michael Essien were in the lineup.

Sad about Michael Essien’s departure?  Feel free to share your cathartic thoughts below…

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Shield’s Up!

5 questions facing Chelsea as the new season kicks off with tomorrow’s Community Shield match…

This soccer summer has flown by thanks to the Euros, Chelsea’s U.S. tour, and the Olympics.  Chelsea faces Manchester City tomorrow in the mother of all preseason games – the unofficial start of the new Premier League season – the FA Community Shield.  As a new season dawns, here are 5 questions facing the Blues:

1)  Will Fernando Torres be able to fill the departed Didier Drogba’s shoes? 

Unfortunately for Chelsea fans, the answer is no.  But very few strikers could replicate the heroics Drogba produced during his Chelsea years.  Although we may see some short-term improvement from Torres after his positive output at Euro 2012, he has never quite clicked with Chelsea and I’m not expecting many goals from him in the new season.

Now that 19-year-old Romelu Lukaku has been loaned to West Brom for the season, Chelsea may do some last minute shopping for an additional striker.  Lukaku was a hot signing for Chelsea early last season when he was billed as a potential replacement for Drogba.  Instead, he languished on the bench, making occasional cameo appearances in lower profile matches.  I’m disappointed to see him loaned, but hopefully he’ll get some vital experience at West Brom and return to Chelsea a more polished, confident player.

With Lukaku out of the picture for now, the Blues need Daniel Sturridge to have a breakout season at forward.

2)  Who will make up the core of Chelsea’s midfield?

Chelsea is currently stocked up on midfielders:  Frank Lampard, Jon Obi Mikel, Ramires, Florent Malouda, Michael Essien, Raul Meireles, Eden Hazard, Oriol Romeu, Josh McEachran, Marko Marin, and now Oscar (the Brazilian youngster Chelsea signed a couple weeks ago).

It’s a good problem to have, sorting through so much talent, but it’s a problem nonetheless.  Will we see a regular group of starters, or will there be constant rotation?  If rotation is the answer, will the midfield be able to gel?  Even if the club offloads a few midfielders, there will still be a lot of talent on the bench every week.

A lot could change in the next few weeks.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see Malouda and maybe even Meireles transferred before the season kicks into high gear.

3)  Is the defense deep enough to survive another grueling schedule?

Surprisingly, Chelsea’s summer deal making (and attempted deal making) has focused on midfielders and strikers.  But it was the back line that ran low on options at the critical point of last season due to injuries and suspensions.

John Terry will likely continue anchoring the Chelsea defense, but how long can he hold up?  By his own admission, Terry is starting to feel his age.  Who will fill in when Terry needs extra recovery days?  Barring any last minute summer signings, we’ll likely see a lot more of Ryan Bertrand who played very well when called on at the end of last season.

Assuming Branislav Ivanovic, Ashley Cole, David Luiz, Gary Cahill, and Terry are the regular rotating starters, there aren’t many additional bench options.  Paulo Ferreira may have a little left in the tank, but he’s been at the club since 2004 and has had a very limited role the past two seasons.  Sam Hutchinson’s comeback story is inspiring, but he may not be ready for the rigor of weekly Premier League defending.

Chelsea tried to get Marseille defender Cesar Azpilicueta this week, but Marseille rejected the offer.  Now Di Matteo may be looking at Juventus defender Stephen Lichtsteiner instead.

4)  Which loan players should be retained and who should be loaned this season? 

Josh McEachran was being carefully groomed under Carlo Ancelotti two seasons ago, but Andre Villas Boas ignored McEachran at the beginning of last season.  The 19-year-old went on loan to Swansea for the remainder of the 2011/2012 season where he didn’t see much more playing time.  McEachran has a lot of potential but Chelsea’s midfield is so crowded right now, he’ll likely go on loan for another season.

Yossi Benayoun is a talented player who doesn’t seem to fit in Chelsea’s overall plan.  He spent last season on loan at Arsenal where he did quite well.  Benayoun was on the bench for Chelsea’s preseason loss to Brighton last Saturday, but he didn’t play and it doesn’t seem likely Chelsea will keep him much longer.

Further room on the Chelsea bench might also be made by loaning Kakuta, van Aanholt, and even Oriol Romeu.

5)  Will Roberto Di Matteo make it past Christmas in charge of Chelsea?

When Di Matteo was finally offered a two-year contract earlier this summer after his stint as Chelsea’s interim manager, it seemed only fair.  After all, Di Matteo earned the opportunity by leading the club to the FA Cup and Champions League titles.  The contract offer showed promising (and rare) open-mindedness about manager selection from owner Roman Abramovich.  It will be interesting to see how the new season tests Abramovich’s patience.  Will he be willing to weather the season’s storms with Di Matteo at the helm or will he fire him at the first sign of trouble?

As usual, there are a lot more questions than answers.  One thing’s pretty certain though:  it won’t be a boring season for Chelsea!

What do you think about Chelsea’s prospects this season?

Post-All Star Game Thoughts

MLS All-Stars beat Chelsea 3-2

They’re still in preseason.  They’re still in preseason.  They’re still in preseason.  That’s what I’ve had to keep telling myself about Chelsea since the loss last night to the MLS All-Stars in Philadelphia.  Actually, it wasn’t a poor Chelsea performance.  And the All-Stars weren’t particularly starry.  It was a decent game with a decent number of scoring chances for both teams.  Still, I’d rather Chelsea have won.

Michael Essien was on fire last night.  He looked like the pre-2011-injury Essien (which is a good thing).  Perhaps he is just now fully recovered from the knee injury that wrecked half of last season for him.  Or, perhaps he was just a man on a mission to show Di Matteo that he can still take care of business in midfield.  Regardless, he looked great and made a tremendous case for himself.  His was aggressive and fast on defense.  His passes were back to their old accuracy.  It was great to see.

For all the talk about Chelsea’s supposed youth revolution this summer, look who scored the Blues’ goals last night – Terry and Lampard.  These guys just keep on ticking.  I don’t know how many more seasons they’ve got left in them, but as long as they keep contributing like this, it’s hard to think about replacing them.

New Blues Marko Marin and Eden Hazard didn’t quite click with the team last night.  Marin held onto the ball a little too long in the box on several occasions when a quicker shot or pass might’ve been the better option.  Unfortunately, Hazard simply didn’t get many opportunities to show his stuff when he came on in the second half.

Lukaku’s effort was decent.  I’d like to see him pull the trigger on shots more often.  He could be a little more selfish with the ball in front of goal.  And we still haven’t gotten a good look at his heading ability.  But overall he had a better game than he did against PSG.

One of the trickiest aspects of Di Matteo’s job this summer will be figuring out what the best combination of players is, particularly in midfield.  That job is even harder with some key guys like Mata and Sturridge currently busy at the Olympics.  I thought the first half offensive group (Lampard, Essien, Benayoun, Ramires, Marin, Lukaku) significantly outperformed the second half group (Mikel, Meireles, Hazard, Piazon, Malouda, De Bruyne).

Last night’s loss was disappointing because you want to see your team dominate in preseason.  But it’s not that big a deal.  There is a still lot of preseason yet to go.  The team is already in Miami for their final U.S. Tour stop where they’ll play A.C. Milan on Saturday.

Your thoughts on Chelsea’s performance last night?

Chelsea in Seattle

Blues arrive in America for two week tour

The blog has been on pause for a couple weeks while I’ve been vacationing with my family.  But I’m back home now, just in time for Chelsea’s arrival stateside for their four-city tour, which kicks off this Wednesday in Seattle against the Sounders (you can see it live on ESPN2).  The team touched down in Seattle yesterday evening to begin a busy couple weeks of training, matches, and publicity.

When Chelsea last visited the States in 2009, they swung by the then brand new Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas (which is just a few minutes from my house) for a game against Mexican side Club America.

Pre-game shot I took at Cowboys Stadium in 2009 before the Chelsea v. Club America match.

Unfortunately, the Blues’ U.S. tour this time around is geographically peripheral with stops in Seattle, New York City, Philadelphia, and Miami – locales too far-flung for my schedule and pocketbook this summer.  But I’ll still be closely tracking the team’s American adventure, so be sure to check back here regularly for updates.

Chelsea released their tour roster yesterday, which is an exciting mix of youngsters and veterans.  I don’t envy DiMatteo’s task of determining a first team from this talented pool.  Making his job even more difficult are the major players who will join the tour later (Terry, Torres, Meireles, Cole, and Malouda – due to their post-Euro 2012 rest) and four players not even on the tour since they will be playing in the Olympics (Bertrand, Sturridge, Romeu, and Mata).

Welcome to America, Chelsea!  Hope you enjoy your stay and here’s hoping we get to enjoy four Blues victories while you’re here!

Which of Chelsea’s four U.S. pre-season matches are you looking forward to the most?

Longest 45 Minutes Ever

Chelsea – with 10 men – beat Barcelona to advance to Champions League Final

I’m too giddy to write anything very coherent so I’m just going to spill some random thoughts on Chelsea’s remarkable, against-all-odds defeat of the defending Champions League champs.  I really didn’t think the Blues would have a more dramatic victory this season than the one over Napoli at Stamford Bridge to reach the Champions League quarterfinals.  Fortunately, I was wrong, as today’s team effort has to be one of the most dramatic wins in the club’s history.

The first half was pretty disastrous for Chelsea.  Once Barcelona went up 2-0, the match had vibes of a rout.  A few minutes before Barcelona’s second goal there was the bizarre red card for John Terry.  Bizarre not so much because he didn’t deserve it – he probably did, though a yellow card would’ve sufficed given the heft of the game – but because it was such a remarkably dumb thing to do.  Particularly dumb coming from the team captain!  I just don’t get how he could weather the first game with such diligence and poise only to throw everything away by kneeing Sanchez in the back.  It’s still unbelievable.  Now Terry will have to watch the Final from the stands.

After the disappointment of the Terry ejection, the Ramires goal was a surreal lifeline for Chelsea.  Once again, Lampard hit Ramires with a terrific pass, then Ramires calmly chipped the keeper for the crucial away goal.  Beautiful goal, and the timing couldn’t have been better for keeping Chelsea’s hopes alive for the second half.

Gary Cahill had to leave the game early on when he tweaked his hammy.  Frankly, I thought Chelsea was defensively doomed when Bosingwa jogged on as Cahill’s replacement.  Ironically, two of the Chelsea players I recently wrote should be transferred this summer were on the pitch by the end of the match:  Kalou and Torres.  At first (after coming on late in the second half), Kalou and Torres were up to their regular shenanigans – passing the ball to the other team and not taking advantage of the precious few scoring opportunities (Kalou squandered one chance that baffled the commentators).

But then, in the 90th minute, redemption for Fernando Torres.  He got on the end of a long clearance from Ivanovic, very coolly sidestepped Barcelona’s keeper Valdes, and slid in the goal that sealed Chelsea’s trip to the Final in Munich.  Earlier in the game it had crossed my mind how sweet it would be if Torres could get a heroic goal after the critically panned season he (and fans) have endured.  Amazingly, it actually happened.

If possible, this match was even more nerve fraying than the first leg at Stamford Bridge.  Almost the entire second half took place in front of Chelsea’s goal.  I just don’t get how this could be the same Chelsea team that floundered against so many lesser Premier League opponents this year.  How has Di Matteo been able to create such a cohesive unit?  The Blues’ defensive discipline was remarkable and Petr Cech had one of the best games of his career.

The downside of today’s win is that it felt like the Champions League Final.  It was such an epic effort by Chelsea that I fear the actual Final next month may seem a bit anticlimactic.  Another downer is the number of key Chelsea players who will miss the Final due to yellow card accumulation:  Ivanovic, Ramires, Meireles, and of course Terry.  UEFA needs to respect fans and allow the best players to play in the Final by clearing the card slate after the semifinals.

What a night for Chelsea fans!  This unexpected Champions League run goes a long way toward redeeming this season’s travails.  I don’t know which opponent I’d prefer for Chelsea in the Final between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich.  For now, I don’t really care.  I’m just going to enjoy the fact that Chelsea somehow has a ticket to Munich!

Thoughts on Chelsea’s Champions League shocker?  Feel free to share below…

Goose Egg Blues

Chelsea manages 0-0 draw with Arsenal

Yesterday’s draw with Arsenal was better than losing of course, but it sure didn’t do Chelsea much good in their fight for a Champions League spot next season.  It’s a strange position for Chelsea to be in, the fact that they’re one game away from the Champions League Final and yet still so far from finishing in the top four in the Premier League.  Chelsea is four points behind fourth place Newcastle.  That means Newcastle’s trip to Stamford Bridge on May 2 is shaping up to be a major showdown.

Much was made yesterday of Di Matteo’s major lineup reconfiguring against Arsenal.  I thought it was a good move, resting some guys before the Barcelona game Tuesday, and helping others shake off some rust.  It was particularly good to see Essien and Romeu back in midfield.  I actually prefer them to Mikel and Meireles in central midfield roles.  I’d like to see Essien start at Barcelona, but Di Matteo will probably go back to Meireles.

Chelsea looked much better than Arsenal for most of the match, but the Blues had a major problem with final third passing and finishing.  Torres and Kalou were particularly guilty of this, with Malouda and Sturridge sharing some of the blame (though Malouda and Sturridge have played less lately and might have more of an excuse for lack of game sharpness).  Chelsea needs Drogba to be over his knee injury in time for the big Barcelona game, though I still think Torres could be useful in an unconventional (for him) right-wing midfield role.

It’s going to be a suspenseful next three weeks for Chelsea with the Champions League Semifinal at Barcelona, FA Cup Final against Liverpool, and four vital Premier League games remaining!  Come on Chelsea!

Will Chelsea finish the Premier League season in the top four?

Dismal Blues Part 2

Why Chelsea’s oldest players aren’t the club’s main problem

The popular jab at Chelsea all season has been the collective age of their players – that they’re too old to hack it anymore and that wholesale changes are needed.  Critics may be right about the wholesale changes part, but Chelsea’s aged players aren’t the primary problem.

As I mentioned yesterday, the Wigan and Fulham matches were a real beat-down for this fan even though Chelsea beat Wigan and tied Fulham.  I guess having two matches so close together just magnified the aspects of Chelsea’s play – and the players – that have annoyed most of the season.  I didn’t have a week between games to forget the team’s problems and become an optimist again.

I hate to pick on Fernando Torres first (because he has been drubbed by critics throughout his year and a half at Chelsea) but my fan patience has expired with him.  I like the guy, have rooted for him to succeed, and wish he would be a Chelsea superstar.  But if it hasn’t happened by now, it’s probably not going to happen.  His is a particularly frustrating case because you can see potential there, but it’s never realized beyond occasionally sharp passes and crosses.  He works hard, but the effort rarely pays off with shots on goal (or goals period).  Torres takes overly long strides with the ball, predictably barreling straight at defenders, in a halting style that yields constant turnovers.  Didier Drogba on the other hand, while not having his best season, is much more threatening with the ball (he’s also Chelsea’s second highest scorer this season).  He still causes problems for defenders – Torres does not.  Drogba has been woefully underused this season, presumably in an effort to get Torres out of his slump and fully integrated with the team.  It’s not working.  Drogba needs to start every remaining game.  I don’t know what he’s being saved for at this point, as every game is critical.  Torres seems like a decent guy, but for the club’s sake he should be sold.

While I’m thinking about forwards, it’s also time for Salomon Kalou to go.  Kalou has never quite clicked over to the consistency Chelsea needs.  I appreciate that he has earned some extra late season game time by virtue of his Champions League goal at Benfica, but he’s done nothing since to merit this much pitch time.  Kalou makes too many ill-timed passes and often holds onto the ball too long.

Daniel Sturridge should start every game at forward with Drogba.  Sturridge has been the victim of too much lineup tinkering the past few months, which stifled the hunger and goal-scoring savvy he demonstrated early in the season.

At midfield, critics have been cranky toward Frank Lampard because of his age (33) but Lampard is the team’s top scorer this season!  That despite playing less than he ever has at Chelsea.  Lampard has occasional giveaways and unwise fouls, but he isn’t the weakest link in the Blues’ midfield.  Raul Meireles is.  I’ve never been thrilled by Chelsea’s acquisition of Meireles.  His passing is average, he fouls too much, and his shooting is atrocious (no, I’m not forgetting his end-of-match blast against Benfica).  He’s just not reliable enough.  I’d much rather see Michael Essien (who’s still only 29) back as the consistent midfield commander.

Ramires has also annoyed lately.  He’s in danger of falling into the Kalou category of not quite good enough.  I love his tireless hustle, but it doesn’t make up for his awful amount of turnovers!  I’m not ready to throw in the towel on him yet, but he needs some goals or assists to boost his stock.

It’s time for Chelsea to revamp, but getting rid of Terry, Lampard, and Drogba isn’t the answer.  Those three are no longer in their prime, but Chelsea is still better when they’re on the pitch (or at least no worse).  Why would a team get rid of those assets (their top two scorers this season in Lampard and Drogba) as long as they’re still healthy?

When this season began, it seemed Chelsea was in the process of integrating young players with the “old”.  What happened to Romelu Lukaku and Oriol Romeu?  We saw Romeu quite a bit before Christmas, but I don’t understand why the heavily touted Lukaku hasn’t been granted more run-outs.

This off-season, Chelsea needs to take the long-haul approach to rebuilding, which means no more mid-career, Torres-type acquisitions.  Instead, they need to milk the remaining seasons from their veterans while weaving in dynamic youngsters.  Youth is the ticket!  That strategy may not yield immediate trophies, but the delayed gratification would be worth it.

What players do you think Chelsea should relinquish this summer?

Winning Ugly

Chelsea squeaks past Benfica 2-1 to reach Champions League semis

Well, you win some, you lose some, and sometimes you win with your opponent’s flames licking at your heels.  Benfica was certainly the hotter team Wednesday night, predictably enough, since they had the deficit to overcome.  Despite Di Matteo’s wise warnings against complacency leading up to the match, Chelsea looked rather casual and frequently sloppy for much of the game.  Benfica looked hungry and quite eager to stamp their ticket to Barcelona for the semifinal round.

It wasn’t Chelsea’s best effort by a long shot (Ramires’ soul-draining tap-in miss characterized Chelsea’s evening).  The Blues showed little of the cohesiveness and discipline they had in the away leg win.  The Stamford Bridge crowd seemed puzzled by the team’s performance and roared with relief when Raul Meireles slammed home an amazing (and frankly rare by his standards) shot in extra time to seal the victory.  But a win is a win and it sure is fun to have the Blues back in the Champions League final four (for the first time since 2009 when they also played Barcelona).  It’s a major bonus to fans who have watched Chelsea’s Premier League season sputter and stall for months.

So Chelsea will host Barcelona in the first semifinal leg on Wednesday, April 18.  I can hardly wait!  I really wish the first leg was in Barcelona because it seems the team with home field advantage in the second game often has the upper hand.  Still, it’s the Champions League semifinals and after the season Chelsea’s had, fans feel like this is living on borrowed time.  I plan to enjoy the ride, even if it is a steep uphill drive against Barcelona.

Here’s hoping Chelsea can get their act together and seize the opportunity.  It’s so difficult and rare to reach the Champions League final four.  For several Chelsea vets, this may be their last opportunity to win the tournament.  And while you certainly can’t overlook the next couple Premier League matches – Wigan tomorrow and Fulham Monday – as both opponents are playing well at the moment (and they’re the kind of matches that have really tripped up the Blues this season), the primary focus must be defeating Barcelona.  It’s the last chance to convert the forgettable 2011-2012 season to an unforgettable one.

How do you think Chelsea will fare against Barcelona in the first semifinal leg?

Chelsea’s Semi-Merry Christmas

Blues have to make do with 1 – 1 draw at Tottenham

Well, it could have been worse.  As the match commentators reminded us approximately one hundred times before kickoff, a loss would have certainly killed off the season for Chelsea.  So the Blues’ title hopes are still alive – via life support to be certain – but alive nonetheless.  If only those pesky Manchesters would help us out with some internal meltdowns or something, maybe we could make some headway in the league.

The Spurs game started ugly for Chelsea.  Spurs were frighteningly dominant for the first ten minutes, making Chelsea look like a college team.  Spurs were aggressive, fast, really going for the jugular, while Chelsea looked utterly lethargic.  I actually began to wonder if Chelsea critics have been right all season – that maybe Chelsea is holding on to the past in its player selection, that perhaps they need a complete makeover.  But then, midway through the first half, Ashley Cole slices a perfect cross through the box, which Sturridge calmly volleyed in to tie the game.  That’s the second game in a row Cole’s pinpoint service has resulted in a goal.  Just a few minutes later, Drogba smashed a half-volley into the post from a tough angle.  I flailed and groaned from my living room perch.  Somehow, Chelsea clawed their way back into the game and looked like the more threatening team.

Ivanovic had to leave the game with a tweaked hammy just after the half hour mark.  I thought Chelsea was toast at that point.  Bosingwa slid over to share center back duties with Terry, and who was that entering the game… Paulo Ferreira?  Sorry Paulo, I almost forgot you were over there!  It was his first Premier League game of the season.  I fretted that Paulo’s lack of game time would spell rustiness and leaky defense.  I was wrong.  Paulo had a heck of a game, shutting down his wing corridor quite nicely.

To start the second half, Chelsea looked like a different team, suddenly dominating possession, and shooting at will.  Only problem with the at-will shooting was that it was absolutely horrible and completely wasteful!  Ferreira, Ramires, Meireles, and Sturridge all scattered useless blasts into the seats within a few minutes of each other.

Unfortunately, those early second half chances did not facilitate additional chances.  The high-octane match slowed to a simmer after about seventy minutes.  Torres replaced Drogba for the last fifteen minutes and was typically invisible.  Man I wish he would snap out of it!  I’m tired of the same old media commentary about Torres.  He needs some starts and he needs to play ninety minutes.  And he needs to be locked in a room daily with a top sports psychologist.  This is looking increasingly like a rebuilding year for Chelsea, so AVB needs to get Torres in there and start assessing whether or not he’s going to be part of the Blues master plan moving forward.  Speaking of the master plan, where was Lampard today?  I disagree with him not starting.  I’m growing skeptical of AVB’s choices lately.  I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt for a few more games, but he definitely looks iffy at the moment.

So Chelsea just got a point for Christmas.  Certainly better than the lump of coal a loss would have been, but not as merry and bright a holiday as Blues fans had hoped for.  At least we won’t have to wait long for the next points opportunity – the day after Christmas it’s on against Fulham.  I’ll be traveling for the holidays to visit family, and will be watching the game (on TV) with my brother who happens to be a Fulham fan.  Good times.  Family, food, and soccer – sounds like a pretty good holiday!

What do you think about Villas-Boas’ lineup choices recently?

Blues Christmas

Three positive wins followed by head-scratching Wigan draw

It’s been too long since my last post, particularly considering the momentum-shifting wins over Newcastle, Valencia, and most of all Manchester City, which have lifted Blues fans’ spirits the past few weeks.  Alas, the demands of coaching my own soccer team have precluded as much Chelsea analysis as I’d prefer.  Now that I’m entering a mid-season Christmas break, I planned on catching up on a few posts, starting with a Blues brag session about four big wins in a row… and then that trip to Wigan happened yesterday.

I don’t want to be too negative, keeping in mind the big wins preceding the Wigan draw.  The Newcastle victory wasn’t pretty, but it was a gutsy, vital victory.  Then there was the Champions League win over Valencia in which Drogba finally awoke from hibernation to score two goals, reminding me why he’s one of my favorite players.  The Valencia game was probably Chelsea’s most complete performance of the season so far.  Finally, the most gratifying win of the season – 2 – 1 over Manchester City – wasn’t very pretty either, but it was great to see Chelsea band together and get the job done.  It was also great to see Lampard come off the bench and blast home that PK, undoubtedly unleashing his playing time frustrations in the process.

Those three wins made the Wigan draw all the more frustrating because the Blues were finally gaining some traction, only to hit another rut.  It’s one of those ruts that are particularly maddening for fans because it’s Wigan for crying out loud!  If you could ever expect to chalk up three relatively easy road points, it is against Wigan.  So the fact that you can’t beat one of the worst teams in the league is disturbing to say the least.  Once again, Chelsea predictably sat on a 1 – 0 lead (when every Blues fan watching could tell one goal wouldn’t be enough) and couldn’t close out the game.  AVB must be pulling his hair out.  Just when Chelsea clawed their way back within striking distance of the top of the league, they drop two points to Wigan.  Unfortunately, the Manchesters just can’t be relied on to drop similar points to the league’s bottom-dwellers.

So what went wrong at Wigan?  Well, Justin Bieber did visit Stamford Bridge last week, so that might have had some adverse effect.  Aside from that unproven possibility, the attack was frustratingly dull – with Drogba slipping back into hibernation, Meireles turning over the ball too much, and too many predictable crosses straight to the Wigan defenders.  The defense was still periodically sloppy and Cech less than sharp (especially on the Wigan equalizer!).

Sturridge and Mata are the two most positive starters at the moment, though Mata had less of a game than he’s enjoyed recently.  Meireles hasn’t impressed me much so far.  He’s not bad, but he hasn’t shown enough to justify so much bench-time for Lampard.  I wonder if AVB has a bit of a biased preference for his fellow countryman Meireles?  On the subject of midfielders, I’ve found myself pining for Essien lately.  He’s still rehabilitating his knee.  I hoped he might be appearing on the bench by now, but even if he was, we probably couldn’t expect his form to fully recover this season.

I also think Malouda has been prematurely relegated to the bench this season.  By now he’s been out of the lineup so much that when he does get a few minutes, his match sharpness is obviously lacking.  And poor Torres – it must be frustrating to be that guy.  AVB really shouldn’t have had him warming up on the sideline yesterday only to send him back to the bench.  Drogba wasn’t showing enough to justify a full ninety, so after Sturridge scored, Torres should’ve replaced Drogba.

A point is better than none of course, but still… Wigan?  Not the bump in the road you want right before the big clash at Tottenham on Thursday!  That will be another season-defining match, one that will hopefully provide a very merry Christmas for Chelsea.

What lineup changes should Chelsea make against Tottenham?  Feel free to weigh in below…