As Fleetwood Mac pointed out many moons ago, "players only love you when they're playing". That is why Jose Mourinho is no longer manager of the moment for Ricardo Carvalho or Arjen Robben, whose complaints about being dropped and substituted respectively in the opening game of the season at Wigan suggest that the current campaign may be less smooth than the previous one.
Yesterday the club captain, John Terry, was bravely trying to play down all talk of dissent in the ranks, but Chelsea's rivals will be hoping that the downside to the champions' extravagant signing of Michael Essien will be further disquiet and unrest.
Mourinho understandably believes not, and has already guaranteed that the team selected to face Arsenal at Stamford Bridge today in the first League encounter of the season between any of the big three sides will be changed for this week's fixtures against West Bromwich Albion (Wednesday) and Tottenham (Saturday). "For sure, I don't play the same 11 in all three matches," he said, adding as if to reassure Carvalho: "Not always [William] Gallas and [John] Terry. It's the reality of modern football and a team that cannot choose competitions. In a club with every competition to win, you can-not have only 12 top players."
Hence Chelsea's dogged perseverance in pursuit of Essien, a dynamic figure who can understudy Claude Makelele as the holding player or replace one of the central- midfield players (most probably Eidur Gudjohnsen, rather than the indefatigable Frank Lampard). Modest and quietly spoken, the Ghanaian has sensibly resisted obvious comparisons with Patrick Vieira, on this of all weekends.
Arsène Wenger claims to be relaxed about not being able to shop at quite the same class of shop as Mourinho, and is delighted to have seen off Chelsea's interest in Ashley Cole, however messily. It will suit him that Essien is not ready to play much of a role, if any, today; in the 2-1 defeat by Chelsea in the Community Shield game, Cesc Fabregas and Mathieu Flamini were not disgraced, but the midfield post-Vieira still looked light-weight, even once Gilberto Silva came on for Flamini.
The other key factor that day was how Didier Drogba was able to bully another youngster, Philippe Senderos, and strike both his side's goals. The good news for Wenger is that last weekend against Wigan Drogba was back to his infuriating old self; the bad news is that a newly confident Hernan Crespo, not Mateja Kezman, is waiting in the wings. Waiting on the wings, too, is Shaun Wright-Phillips as well as Joe Cole, the pair soon summoned last Sunday once Mourinho decided that Arjen Robben and Gudjohnsen were not performing.
The consensus in the Chelsea camp about why it was such a struggle to see off the newly promoted side was that everyone tries especially hard to scalp the champions. Added to which, as Cole admitted: "I think we were complacent, which is not like Chelsea, not the structure we've built at the club over the past year. Of course we're not going to be complacent about Arsenal. We never got beaten by any of the so-called smaller sides last year, which gave us the edge. When you're Chelsea, you've got to go out and perform. Whoever plays against Arsenal has got to make it happen, otherwise they'll be sitting in the stands."
Cole may well be on the sidelines at kick-off this after-noon, though Lampard, also desperate to shrug off the memory of Wednesday night in Copenhagen, will have an immediate opportunity to do so. The Footballer of the Year might, in fact, have been talking about England rather than his club when he said: "We won't play that badly again. It was just a below-par performance. We're good pros and it wont happen again. We're not going to go to these places and roll them over so we've got to go up a level again, take the burden of being champions and make it a positive."
There are other psychological aspects to today's fixture. Going into it, Arsenal can point to a remarkable record of nine seasons without defeat by Chelsea in the Premiership (see table), which their supporters will maintain counts for more than a narrow loss in the Community Shield or even the Champions' League quarter-final of two years ago. Were Chelsea to end that run they could claim to have inflicted a blow as grievous as the one administered to Manchester United, who never recovered from losing at the Bridge last August.
Lampard is adamant, however, that while markers may be put down at this time of year, it is not when championships are decided: "It's a massive game whenever we play Arsenal. It will be a battle on the day and maybe more than a mental win. I heard Ferguson say that United lost the title on the first day of the season, which is not right at all. There were another 37 games after that. I don't understand that. Psychologically, we gained from that, but it's about winning game after game."
"I think people were predicting we were champions at Christmas last year," Damien Duff said. "But it never affected us, so the gaffer won't let anything like that get to us."
Mourinho's anger at the Wigan performance and Carvalho's outburst meant it was just as well that 22 Chelsea players disappeared last week for international matches. In retrospect, even the manager feels that may have been a good thing, preventing them from dwelling on the game, while he was able to analyse it more dispassionately, concluding: "It was maybe more a tactical problem than an attitude problem. So I was quite happy with them going to their national teams."
Soon they will be off again for 10 days, which he feels is "too much". But before then, all in a rush, Arsenal, West Bromwich and Tottenham. It will be a surprise if Chelsea are not well to the fore in the more meaningful League tables published this time next week.
The Premiership Years
2004-05: Chelsea 0 Arsenal 0;
Arsenal 2 Chelsea 2
2003-04: Chelsea 1 Arsenal 2;
Arsenal 2 Chelsea 1
2002-03: Arsenal 3 Chelsea 2;
Chelsea 1 Arsenal 1
2001-02: Arsenal 2 Chelsea 1;
Chelsea 1 Arsenal 1
2000-01: Arsenal 1 Chelsea 1;
Chelsea 2 Arsenal 2
1999-2000: Arsenal 2 Chelsea 1;
Chelsea 2 Arsenal 3
1998-99: Arsenal 1 Chelsea 0;
Chelsea 0 Arsenal 0
1997-98: Arsenal 2 Chelsea 0;
Chelsea 2 Arsenal 3
1996-97: Chelsea 0 Arsenal 3;
Arsenal 3 Chelsea 3
1995-96: Arsenal 1 Chelsea 1; Chelsea 1 Arsenal 0Reuse content