Fight to find fire in Chelsea's belly

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The Independent Online

The Charlton Athletic match programme includes a regular feature with an opposing supporter, who lists his memories of a previous fixture and favourite players from the two clubs concerned, and predicts the score. Thus Robin Dellar from Ealing had the opportunity to tell the world in advance what the outcome would be of Friday morning's game at The Valley: "We'll thrash you 5-0, I'm afraid. A Crespo hat-trick plus John Terry and Joe Cole."

Humility has never been Chelsea's strong point, even after winning English football's greatest prize precisely once in 98 years, which is one reason why Charlton's rousing 4-2 victory will have been cheered at grounds all over the country, not just Highbury and Old Trafford. Coming after Fulham drew at Arsenal and won away to Manchester United, then Bolton beat Chelsea and deservedly held Arsenal, it also confirmed that the leading trio - while way above the others in terms of depth and quality - must not allow ability and confidence to become arrogance and conceit.

"It's the first time I've seen them have no real fire in their belly," said the former West Ham defender Alvin Martin, one of many observers critical of a thoroughly undistinguished performance.

Claudio Ranieri, Chelsea's manager, has been berated for reshuffling his team and tactics too often. If he is sensible, he will not go as far as a year ago, when making seven changes between the draw against Southampton and the trip to Leeds 48 hours later. But a combination of two games in three days and the wretched effort at The Valley demands a freshening-up at the very least for Ports-mouth's visit to Stamford Bridge this afternoon.

Why maintain such a large and expensive squad if not for precisely these circumstances? Having admitted that "I have not seen the defence play so badly before", Ranieri has every excuse to change his entire back four, each of whom contributed to one of Charlton's goals. Glen Johnson, Marcel Desailly and Wayne Bridge could hardly complain at being replaced by Mario Melchiot, William Gallas and Celestine Babayaro respectively, even if John Terry's tenacity and leadership recommend his inclusion.

Against a team like Charlton, without real wingers, it was surprising to see Joe Cole out wide on the left, where he has regularly been less effective than in his favoured position just behind the two strikers, now left vacant by Damien Duff's injury. On the other flank, the infuriating Jesper Gronkjaer, one of nature's born substitutes, contributed nothing except a booking for petulance, while Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink appeared to be auditioning for Grumpy Old Men.

Eidur Gudjohnsen, who tended to get a rough deal even before Ranieri's retail therapy began last summer, was one of the few successes after replacing Gronkjaer at half-time, and deserves to stay in the side even if Hernan Crespo has recovered from his cold.

The danger in changing the team - as with criticism of it - is going over the top. After a humiliating Boxing Day defeat by 8-2 at home to Blackburn Rovers exactly 40 years ago, West Ham's Ron Greenwood retired to his office and wrote down a new side for the return fixture two days later, with nine changes in it. He tore it up and went down to eight, then seven and so on, until finally deciding to drop only one player, Martin Peters. Result: Blackburn 1 West Ham 3.

Midway through a holiday programme is never the best time to offer definitive analysis. Chelsea did, after all, have to play a difficult local derby away to underrated opposition (a week after winning in identical circumstances at Fulham) while Arsenal and United enjoyed home games with much more moderate teams. Now it is the turn of the top two to face more daunting trips, to Southampton and Middlesbrough respectively, over the next two days, while Chelsea have the opportunity to take advantage of entertaining Portsmouth.

Only if they fail to do so should supporters be ringing in the new year with alarm bells. The manager would then step up the hunt for another so-called "champion" or two, almost certainly beginning with Valencia's Argentinian defender Roberto Ayala. For the moment he will only say: "A lot of journalists call me from Spain and say Ayala is staying with Valencia. I don't know."

Injuries to Juan Sebastian Veron and Emmanuel Petit as well as Duff might tempt him into obtaining a new midfielder, and there will inevitably be calls for another goalscorer, when it would be more profitable to work on building up understanding between Adrian Mutu, Crespo and Gudjohnsen. "It's not important to have a number one striker if you have four number ones to share the goals," added Ranieri, who needs Hasselbaink to justify his position in that quartet.

Of the summer recruits, Claude Makelele, Duff and Mutu have been the most successful, Crespo, Veron and Johnson (who has youth on his side) the least so. The jury is out, as ever, on Cole; gearing up for a judgement on Géremi; and has recorded a verdict of misadventure on the neglectful left-back Bridge.

After returning from John Bunyan's "Valley of Humiliation", the stated target for Ranieri's pilgrims if they are to progress is a maximum of five defeats. They have already suffered three, but so have United, who finished well beaten at the Bridge last month. Arsenal must still travel to the same venue, where they famously lost their unbeaten record in the 24th game of the season 13 years ago.

Harry Redknapp has already warned his Portsmouth players: "We could face a backlash from Chelsea", and the other two championship contenders should not discount the same possibility.

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