The Chelsea players must have known what Jose Mourinho thought of their recent performances, of being in the bottom half of the table, of 14 goals conceded from seven Premier League games. Mourinho himself said publicly on Monday that the squad had an attitude problem and needed to be more consistent.
And yet last night in Porto, Chelsea showed the same old defensive sloppiness that is preventing them for generating any momentum this season. Chelsea lost 2-1 to a good Porto side. The first goal coming from yet another individual mistake from Branislav Ivanovic, who is struggling to keep his head above water this season. Of all the embarrassments he has undergone this season, last night, courtesy of Yacine Brahimi, was close to the worst. Brahimi beat Ivanovic to create the first goal, and on another night he might have been responsible for another two or three.
Porto’s second, at the start of the second half, was even more infuriating, as Chelsea switched off again from a simple set piece. It was not a remarkable run or header that beat Chelsea, but it was the second goal from a corner Chelsea conceded in four days. They came with the intention of defending well, but lacked the 90-minute concentration to do so.
Mourinho came back to Porto, the club where he made his name, to match the hosts for organisation and athleticism. But his players are simply not defending well enough for Mourinho’s plans, which put defensive organisation ahead of everything else, to work. October starts on Thursday and yet this 2015-16 Chelsea side still does not look like a Mourinho team.
While Chelsea had chances to draw 2-2, once Eden Hazard and Nemanja Matic were redeemed from the bench, the fact is that Porto had far more to go 3-1 up. Had they done so it would have been a fairer reflection on the balance of play. Chelsea will surely still qualify from Group G. Mourinho said beforehand this would be their hardest game. But they are not looking much better, despite Mourinho’s very public haranguing.
After castigating his players in public on Monday, Mourinho had no option last night but to make changes. Having questioned the “motivation, desire and commitment” of some of the squad, Eden Hazard and Nemanja Matic, two of their best last season, were on the bench. So was John Terry, who must have wondered how this defence is thought to be better off without him. Oscar, Loic Remy and Falcao did not even make it as far as the match-day squad.
Mourinho predicted a game of physical intensity, and so he partnered Ramires and Jon Obi Mikel – two of his less fashionable players – in central midfield. With Willian and Pedro working hard down the flanks, Chelsea had the players to dig in and hit Porto on the break.
It was the right plan, but his players could not execute it. They even had an early threat on the counter-attack. One Diego Costa break down the left set up Cesc Fabregas, who forced a sharp save from Mourinho’s old friend Iker Casillas. The next move was even better, Costa to Willian to Pedro, whose shot Casillas turned away from the bottom corner.
The problem for Chelsea is that a defence is only as strong as its weakest link. Branislav Ivanovic was fortunate to be spared the axe last night, and this performance was in the same vein as all of his other struggles. It was Ivanovic’s mistake which helped Porto into the lead. Yacine Brahimi danced in from the left, and skipped past Ivanovic. Asmir Begovic did well to turn Brahimi’s shot away, but Andre Andre was there to volley in the rebound. Begovic got a hand to it but could not keep it out.
Chelsea needed a response. It came with a spectacular equaliser from the final kick of the first half. Ramires drew a foul from Danilo 25 yards out from goal, slightly to the left. Willian took the free-kick and curled it around the wall – where Chelsea had stationed players – and into the far corner of Casillas’ net. He did not move as the ball flashed past him.
That goal might have drained Porto’s intensity, but it did not. They started the second half even quicker and sharper, still confident in the knowledge that Brahimi could do as he pleased with Ivanovic. The Algerian winger attacked again down the left, skipping past Ivanovic, holding off Fabregas and forcing a corner off Kurt Zouma. Ruben Neves whipped the ball in and Maicon darted towards the near post, in front of Ramires. Maicon’s glancing header was enough to divert the ball between Begovic and his near post.
Porto sensed Chelsea’s weakness and continued to push. Vincent Aboubakar, their imposing centre-forward, curled a subtle pass across to Brahimi on the left. He shot for the bottom corner. This time Ivanovic managed to get in the way.
Mourinho knew his team needed more. Hazard came on for Jon Obi Mikel, replacing what security Chelsea nominally had with some more fizz up front. But no Mikel in midfield gave more space to Porto, and Imbula started to find his range. He forced another save from Begovic before a remarkable passage in which Brahimi flashed one ball across the box, Imbula had a shot deflected over, Aboubakar had another blocked by Cahill and Brahimi, in yet again, forced Begovic to save from close range.
Porto’s third felt imminent, Chelsea needed more legs. Mourinho threw on Nemanja Matic and Kenedy, but numbers alone were not enough to fix the breakdown in Chelsea’s marking. Again, they were disorganised from a corner. Miguel Layun, on loan from Watford, swung it in and Danilo’s header thumped the far post.
Chelsea managed to cause chaos in the box in the final minutes, in their desperate pursuit of an equaliser. They thought they had a good case for handball, and Diego Costa shot wide with the final action of the game. Chelsea looked better with him back in the side, but strikers are far from their biggest problem.