When Ray Wilkins was a Premier League manager, at Queens Park Rangers in the mid-Nineties, any team sitting one point behind the leaders at Christmas, having scored far more goals than any of their rivals and conceded far fewer, would be looking forward to a happy and prosperous new year. But 10 years on, the game has changed, and for many scribes and commentators that is apparently a position of weakness and vulnerability, in which Chelsea – where Wilkins is now assistant to Luiz Felipe Scolari – are a team with "no Plan B", just one defeat away from becoming this week's club in crisis.
During Match of the Day's coverage of the 2-0 win over West Brom-wich Albion on Friday, there was even a question raised about whether Didier Drogba could "kickstart their season". If they have only been free-wheeling so far, then the rest will be in trouble, starting down the road at Fulham this afternoon.
It was true that the Boxing Day game was so routine as to have been a throwback to Jose Mourinho's days, when Chelsea would effectively declare a truce once 2-0 ahead against inferior opposition, who gratefully accepted it rather than risk the proper beating they deserved. Albion fell into that category, their manager,Tony Mowbray, admitting later that he had left out his most dangerous forward, Roman Bednar, because today's home match with Tottenham offered a more realistic chance of winning than Friday's did.
Much of the criticism aimed at Chelsea this season has concerned a failure in home games to break down either weaker teams (Newcastle and West Ham) or other title contenders (Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal). Drogba, however, did not start in any of those games, and it is clear that now he can have a huge influence on the destiny of the title – as long as he is in the mood – with or without Nicolas Anelka alongside him.
"Top-quality players are on the same wavelength and I wouldn't see a problem with whatever system Felipe decided to utilise," Wilkins said. "You can see Didier's ability to get hold of the ball and bring other people into the game. He's the best there is at it. He can get hold of a ball on his chest, kill the game and allow Frank [Lampard] and Michael Ballack to get forward into the box."
It is a quality that Lampard certainlyappreciates. "Didier has a huge presence," he said of his team-mate.
"He was unfit for a while but now he is fit and he will worry defenders. I made a bit of a niche at this club with him as a frontman and me scoring a lot of goals. The ball sticks to him and he holds people off for you to arrive. We've got the top scorer in thePremier League in Anelka, plus Drogba, one of the best strikers in the world, so if those two are fit and firing we'll be very happy."
Chelsea also have a nucleus of players who have been involved in pursuing the title for several seasons, and Lampard, in particular, can speak from that experience. "Christmas won't be a turning point," he said. "It is too tight and too many teams are in it.
"If you pick up only four points over the Christmas period it won't make too much difference, you are going to have to wait until later in the season to see how it develops. We must put a run of wins together in 2009 and get back to our strong home form. Teams are making it difficult for us at home and if we can react better and get the results then we will be OK.
"We know what to do, we have got good players who have won things and a manager who has won things, and if we get into that zone where you are winning then you can keep a winning mentality and not let it slip, and now would be a good time to do that. We need to remember the little details that made us win it. It is about winning when you are not playing well, or not letting in silly goals when you are winning."
Today's game presents an intriguing challenge for Fulham, whose home record is second only to Liverpool's. It includes a victory over Arsenal – a swift counterattacking team like Chelsea – whom they caught on a bad day this season.
Scolari must therefore decide whether to persevere with both Drogba and Anelka, plus Joe Cole out wide, in a positive 4-3-3 formation; or to recall Deco, after doing on Boxing Day what critics accused him of lacking the stomach for and dropping him. No Plan B? Just as well he won that World Cup with Plan A really.Reuse content