Scolari set for crucial test as faith ebbs away
Chelsea 0 Hull City 0
Monday 09 February 2009
It is an exaggeration to describe Chelsea as a club in crisis. That will be the case if Roman Abramovich loses interest and decides to cut his losses, but for the moment there is a crisis of confidence. It is clear several players have lost self-belief, and many supporters no longer have faith in the manager. What is uncertain is whether the manager and his players believe in one another.
If they do not, Chelsea's season is finished. Few teams survive a lack of faith within the dressing room. The worrying aspect for Chelsea of Saturday's goalless draw against a Hull team that worked hard but have been gifting points since Christmas, was the lack of drive. Hull were sharper and, often, more positive. One snapshot was illuminating. Towards the latter stages Jose Bosingwa dwelt on the ball, then tried to be too clever, and was dispossessed near his own area by Kevin Kilbane. Nothing came of the cross but it was still a reprehensible piece of defending. One would normally have expected John Terry to lambast the full-back but there was not a word.
Neither Luiz Felipe Scolari, Chelsea's manager, nor his players were in a mood to discuss the match afterwards but Ray Wilkins, the coach, did admit the players became "anxious" when they did not score an early goal. They should have scored one, Terry missing a second-minute sitter, but thereafter, despite Chelsea having 60 per cent of possession, 16 corners to three, and twice as many passes, Hull not only had a similar number of efforts on goal but also created the better chances. If Craig Fagan had the finishing acumen of Nicolas Anelka Hull would have won. But then, if Anelka had shown Fagan's energy and movement Chelsea might have.
Anelka is a curiosity. He went into the match as the Premier League's top scorer but has scored in only five of 16 home matches and only touched the ball in the penalty area three times in 90 minutes on Saturday. These statistics, backed up by visual impressions, suggest he is more potent away from home where teams do not sit so deep, enabling him to utilise his pace and clinical one-on-one finishing. At Stamford Bridge the power of Didier Drogba would seem more valuable but Scolari obviously has doubts about his desire and fitness and so backs Anelka despite a return of one goal in eight weeks – and that against Southend. They ought to be a decent combination but Scolari is wedded to a system which has a sole striker at its apex, whether it is called 4-3-3, 4-5-1 or 4-1-4-1.
"Anelka is top scorer," said Hull manager Phil Brown, intimating he would pick the Frenchman. He added: "If [Scolari] plays Drogba [alongside Anelka] maybe he has to sacrifice this system to an extent."
One problem is that, when the full-backs are marked, as opponents increasingly seek to do, Chelsea lack width. The arrival of Ricardo Quaresma is intended to change that. The winger looked lively early on but gave the ball away too easily and tired. Nevertheless, such is the faith invested in Quaresma – not least because he offers some rare flair – the crowd sang "You don't know what you're doing" when he was withdrawn. There was also a banner calling for the Brazilian's dismissal which had clearly been prepared in advance.
Wilkins mounted a strong defence of Scolari, pointing to his enviable track record. "He has been in the game a long time and when you look at what he has won [the chanting] is out of order. It is unnecessary and not very pleasant to hear. I don't think it should be heard in our stadium." Brown noted how important crowd support can be – his own players were backed vociferously by the travelling Tigers fans – and at present Chelsea's players need all the encouragement available.
"All teams can suffer from anxiety," added Brown. "We did after losing six on the bounce; it is probably why we didn't beat West Brom last week. But we arrested it by getting a point then and once the confidence comes back [you see a different team]."
Brown has taken his squad to Dubai for some bonding and training in the sun. Wilkins put his faith in renewal coming via the fixture list arguing Chelsea's "big players" would be inspired by the return of the Champions League. But before Juventus arrive they must negotiate a tricky FA Cup tie on the Vicarage Road gluepot against a Watford team managed by a former member of their coaching staff, Brendan Rogers. Then there is a trip to Villa Park to face the team that have moved above them into third place. Lose those two and Claudio Ranieri could find himself returning to a club which again has a dead man walking in charge.
Chelsea (4-1-4-1): Hilario; Bosingwa, Alex, Terry, A Cole; Mikel (Belletti, 56); Quaresma (Drogba, 62), Ballack (Deco, 72), Lampard, Kalou; Anelka. Substitutes not used: Taylor (gk), Ivanovic, Di Santo, Stoch.
Hull (4-4-2): Duke; Ricketts, Turner, Zayatte, Dawson; Garcia, Ashbee, Marney, Kilbane; Geovanni (France, 80), Fagan. Substitutes not used: Myhill, Doyle, Barmby, Hughes, Halmosi, Manucho.
Referee: L Mason.
Man of the match: Zayatte.
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