Chelsea's silence speaks volumes

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The Independent Football

It may be premature to talk of a sense of crisis at Chelsea but the Premiership champions certainly remain sensitive to criticism. Once more, ahead of tonight's FA Cup quarter-final, Jose Mourinho did not speak yesterday, allowing the assertion of Newcastle United's caretaker manager Glenn Roeder that the Portuguese was struggling to cope with being knocked out of the European Cup to go unchallenged.

"Not winning the Champions' League seems to have hit him hard and, obviously, it's the second year running now," Roeder said in remarks that will sting like salt in Chelsea's wounds, even if they appear wholly accurate. "It seems to have really irritated him and his players."

That sense of irritation was all too evident in Sunday's Premiership defeat at Fulham with William Gallas's dismissal a result of wild frustration and Mourinho's early, questionable substitutions of Joe Cole - in particular - and Shaun Wright-Phillips provoking a bewildered response and not helping Chelsea's cause.

Cole, who is vying with Gallas for Chelsea's player of the season, was clearly annoyed by his removal and it did appear a decision sparked more through vindictiveness as tactical acumen, especially as it followed a public rebuke aimed at the England international just before Christmas that also appeared unwarranted. Cole, however, certainly should be in the starting line-up tonight while Gallas begins his ban, meaning a recall for the underperforming Asier del Horno.

The sense of discomfort at Chelsea has not been helped by the apparent jostling for position behind the scenes. Mourinho's statement on Sunday, in response to speculation that he was quitting for Internazionale, was one of intent and that intent was to stay at Stamford Bridge. Other clubs, notably Real Madrid and Milan, have certainly made overtures to Mourinho but he has resisted.

His relationship with the chief executive, Peter Kenyon, which soured last season after the charges brought by Uefa following the Champions' League tie with Barcelona, is again under scrutiny while, according to sources, Roman Abramovich has been taking a more active involvement in recent weeks.

That may partly be explained by the Champions' League exit, which appears to have annoyed as well as upset the billionaire, and also because it is highly likely that Chelsea will be extremely active in the transfer market this summer. A new left-back and striker are being lined up - ironically two of the positions which were targeted last summer - but other reinforcements are expected while a slew of departures are being discussed.

Maybe that has led to an unsettling of the squad - and the body language of some players is all too obvious right now - although there is still much to play for this season. A League and Cup Double would be a first for Chelsea but before that they have to defeat Newcastle who, of course, knocked them out last season. The prospect of Chelsea again going out to them and at Stamford Bridge, where they lost in the Carling Cup and lost to Barcelona, is unthinkable for Mourinho.

"Because of that I'm sure they will double their concentration for the FA Cup because the Premier League is already won," said Roeder - although that second contention was challenged yesterday by Sir Alex Ferguson who mischievously suggested that Chelsea had "hit the wall".

Roeder's further contention that Chelsea's defeat on Sunday "won't make one iota of a difference" can also be questioned. The defeat did make a difference. It fuelled the festering sense of grievance at Chelsea, particularly in Mourinho's case, of a world conspiring against them, and, as the past has proved, that is an explosive mix. Roeder was in the Newcastle team when they last won at Chelsea - in November 1986. A repeat of that may just light the blue touchpaper.

The Chelsea midfielder Michael Essien has hit back at critics of Chelsea's style and behaviour by declaring that winning is more important than the club's reputation.

"We are all disciplined and respect everybody," Essien said. "Sometimes [dismissals] happen in games. We are well disciplined. The perception that we're not popular because of the way we play or because of the way we conduct ourselves doesn't bother us. Every club has its own style of play. Our only objective is to win."

Gallas sits out tonight's quarter-final as he begins his three-match suspension, but Essien insists there is enough depth in the squad to absorb the loss.

"We will miss William a lot," Essien said. "He is one of our key players. But we have players who can replace him. The decision to send him off [against Fulham on Sunday] was a little bit harsh, but life goes on."

The 1-0 defeat at Craven Cottage seemed to hit the club hard, but Essien said that confidence remains high. "Every game is difficult for us. Teams know what our qualities are and we are given a very tough match," he said. "You can't win every game - you have to lose some. But we are doing our best."