Luiz Felipe Scolari yesterday delivered his most damning verdict yet on his underperforming Chelsea stars when he admitted that some of them had only performed to "35 per cent" of their potential in the last five games. In what sounded like an ominous warning to Didier Drogba, the Chelsea manager said that he had given certain players "four of five chances" and that there was now "no room for questions".
The public criticism may come as a shock to Chelsea's players but they were left in no doubt as to Scolari's feelings earlier in the day when, it is understood, he tore into them during a team meeting for their performance against Manchester United on Sunday. The Brazilian indicated that he will pick what he considers to be his most reliable players against Southend United in their FA Cup third round replay tonight which could mean that, after three games in the team, Drogba drops to the bench.
Drogba must have been one of the players to whom Scolari was referring when he said that some of his team had only been operating at "35 to 40 per cent" in the wake of their 3-0 defeat by United. Others are likely to include Michael Ballack and Deco. Overall, Scolari's assessment of his players, who have won only three of their last 11 games, has been a lot less generous than most of the marks accorded to them in newspapers.
Scolari said: "In the last five games we played at 50 per cent of our potential. No more than this. Some players have been at 75 to 80 per cent while others have been at 35 to 40 per cent. But the balance for our team in the last five games has been 50 per cent. If you ask me if this team are ready to win things then no. They are not ready to win a trophy and they know this. They might not say things publicly but they know we are not ready."
To Scolari's credit he was just as harsh on himself: he did not duck any of the difficult questions and kept his answers good-natured in what was an occasionally tough grilling at the club's Cobham training ground. At 60, however, he does have the insurance of a deal that includes a payoff entitling him to one year's salary, which is worth £5m-plus. Nevertheless, Scolari said he was not afraid of being sacked. "If I lose my job, I'll get another job," he said. "Maybe tomorrow, maybe after a year or two. I've worked for 25 years. It's not my business to think about this. The people, the board, the club, need to look at what we work at every day and say something.
"I like Chelsea. I like Cobham, where I live, I like the school my son is at, I like my job here, the people, even the press. It's not a problem for me. I like every day in London. But if I go back to Brazil, I will like Brazil the same. When I was in Kuwait, I loved Kuwait. I had three fantastic years in Saudi Arabia. I love life and I work hard every day. If I lose my job or don't lose my job, I will be the same."
For a manager who has won the World Cup and the Copa Libertadores twice, Roots Hall in Southend would be an ignominious place to go out of the FA Cup. For that reason, Scolari said he would pick his strongest side with a view to keeping it for Stoke on Saturday. It is shaping up to be a verdict on those who did not pull their weight, against United in particular.
Scolari said: "All the players have had their chance. I have given every player at least five or six games to impress. Now we will start with one team against Southend United, and maybe I will start with the same team against Stoke City. But I need answers from the players. I will give them their chance and I need answers.
"I have looked at many games with Anelka and I have looked at Drogba in the last few games. I have my opinion and I will show my opinion on the pitch [with the players he selects] every game. If I have given players only one chance then maybe some of the players will complain that they have only had one opportunity. But when I have given four or five chances then there is no room for questions. It is my decision to play this or that player."
As for Chelsea's weaknesses at set-pieces, six of the last seven goals they have conceded have come that way, Scolari said he had changed the system again this week. He had recently switched to man-to-man marking and will now go back to defending zonally. "If it doesn't work now then it will be more my mistake," he said.
"If our spirit is not the same as Southend then we will lose. But if we have the same spirit, if we remember the FA Cup is beautiful and that we want to get to the final then we will be OK because we have better technical players than them and we should win. But we must show that on the pitch."
Southend's manager, Steve Tilson, will be without the injured Francis Laurent and suspended Alan McCormack, who will serve a one-match ban after accumulating five yellow cards. He had been due to miss Saturday's league match with Crewe, but the match was postponed due to a frozen pitch. Damian Scannell is available following his return from a disappointing loan spell with Brentford.
Chelsea's failing four
Deco Substituted at half-time against United, he has gone badly off the boil after a promising start.
Michael Ballack Brilliant end to last season but back to pattern of early Chelsea career when games passed him by.
Joe Cole Has not scored since 5 October. Could not get off quickly enough when subbed on Sunday.
Didier Drogba Mr Moody barely lifted a leg against United. A shadow of the player who won 2007 FA Cup final against United.