For a team favoured to reach the Champions League semi-final, these are surprisingly humbling days for Chelsea. How often in the Abramovich era can they have been given bottom-billing on Match of the Day, as happened on Saturday, when the highlights of the first half stretched to one minute 20 seconds, most of which consisted of replays? The second period may have provided more rewarding entertainment for spectators and late-night viewers, but by the end, as Petr Cech clawed away a Gareth Bale free-kick, the boys from the Bridge had failed to bridge the five-point gap on their London rivals and remained in fifth place.
Chelsea looked tired, even though almost half the side had been changed following the draining defeat at Manchester City three days earlier. After games at Benfica tomorrow and Aston Villa on Saturday, they will have played nine times this month. And if the Portugese side are overcome, then the whole of April will involve two matches per week, including the Champions League semi-final and up to four more London derbies.
If a team is winning, we are told, they do not feel the fatigue. After a defeat and a draw in key games, however, Roberto di Matteo cannot afford to let his players listen to their legs and will need to strike a more positive note before tomorrow night's first leg in Lisbon. "We are playing big games every three days," he said. "Physically and mentally it's very demanding for the players. We will have to see how the players are and try to put the team together that has the energy to get a result against Benfica."
Having fielded what was virtually a full-strength side against Tottenham, it is difficult to see how he can refresh things without weakening key areas. Would it do so, for instance, to bring in David Luiz for Gary Cahill, who was Chelsea's best player? Or should any of the old guard make way? Michael Essien and Didier Drogba, both ineffective on Saturday, would be candidates, which raises the Drogba-Torres conundrum again. "Fernando has been doing very well for us," Di Matteo said after a game in which neither made any impact. "We just can't keep playing the same players every game because they will burn out."
Juan Mata is the only one who has started the last three games and he was below his best, despite striking a post with Chelsea's only worthwhile attempt on goal. Tottenham made the better chances but were denied by the bar, two Cech saves and blocks by Cahill and Ashley Cole. That will stand Spurs in good stead for an FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea if they beat Bolton in the re-run quarter-final tomorrow. "The Cup's important for us," Harry Redknapp said. "We want to get to Wembley, to the semi and to the final. We'd be desperately disappointed if we didn't make it to a semi-final now."
As for the chase for third place in the Premier League, he added: "Bring it on, Arsène." Presumably not in the manner that Arsenal did in going from 2-0 down to win 5-2 recently.
Chelsea: CECH 6/10, BOSINGWA 6, CAHILL 8, TERRY 7, COLE 6, RAMIRES 6, ESSIEN 6, MATA 6, LAMPARD 6, STURRIDGE 5, DROGBA 5
Spurs: FRIEDEL 6, ASSOU EKOTTO 7, KABOUL 6, GALLAS 6, WALKER 7, BALE 8, MODRIC 6, PARKER 7, SANDRO 5, VAN DER VAART 6, ADEBAYOR 7
Substitutes: Chelsea Bosingwa 6 (Luiz, 60), Torres (Essien, 76), Kalou (Sturridge, 89). Tottenham Hotspur Saha (Van der Vaart, 76), Livermore (Sandro, 76).
Booked: Chelsea Essien, Tottenham Assou-Ekotto, Sandro.
Man of the match Cahill. Match rating 6/10.
Possession: Chelsea 45% Tottenham 55%.
Attempts on target: Chelsea 5 Tottenham 7.
Referee M Atkinson (West Yorkshire). Attendance 41,830.
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