When does a dip become a crisis? Maybe not just yet, but for the Chelsea manager, Roberto di Matteo, it must be starting to feel like something Carlo Ancelotti, his predecessor bar one, might have described as “a bad moment”.
There is enormous potential, too, for things to get worse before they get better, assuming that they do. On Tuesday, Chelsea go to Turin, where a defeat against Juventus would leave their defence of their Champions’ League crown looking anything but comfortable. Then, a week today, they face Manchester City at Stamford Bridge. All this without John Terry, whose absence yesterday again emphasised the vulnerability of Di Matteo’s defence.
Four Premier League matches without a win now, the Italian is enduring his worst run as Chelsea manager, his worst as anyone’s manager as it happens, since he was sacked by West Bromwich Albion 19 months ago. He did not need reminding that it was a defeat there last March which persuaded Chelsea to part with his immediate predecessor, Andre Villas-Boas.
Di Matteo’s crisis is not so acute that he need worry about suffering a similar fate in the immediate future but his job prospects will not be enhanced by this result. It is not as if he couldn’t see it coming. Albion, managed so well by Steve Clarke, Di Matteo’s former Chelsea team-mate and that club’s much-admired former coach, were set up to counter-attack and executed their plans superbly, defending heroically and going forward with pace and the confidence that they had enough quality to inflict damage. Their home record under Clarke is five wins from six Premier League matches for fifth place in the table – just a point behind a Chelsea side who led the division by four points little more than a month ago. It is nothing more than Albion deserve.
“We are in a good moment,” Clarke said, with an inadvertently ironic choice of words, as he responded to the suggestion that Albion could now start thinking about the Champions’ League. “If the supporters want to dream they can, but we will keep our feet on the ground. It is a great three points with two great goals and a doggedly determined defensive performance. But all we can do is concentrate on winning the next three points. We cannot look any further forward than that.”
The two goals had Shane Long at their heart, the Irishman scoring the first when he ran in behind David Luiz to head home James Morrison’s 10th-minute cross, then turning supplier with a beautiful delivery for the second, nodded in by Peter Odemwingie six minutes into the second half. In between, Eden Hazard had equalised from Cesar Azpilicueta’s centre in what had been a rare Chelsea attackin the opening half. Long displayed a T-shirt bearing a tribute to his grandmother, who died on Friday, after he scored. “It has been a difficult week for Shane,” Clarke said. “But he wanted to play and there was never a doubt that he would. I’ve run out of ways to describe him.”
Chelsea were more potent in the second half, particularly after a woefully ineffective Fernando Torres had been hauled off, replaced by Juan Mata. Oscar replaced Oriol Mateu in the other influential change brought about by Di Matteo but Chelsea could not take the chances they created. Boaz Myhill pulled off fine saves from Oscar and Daniel Sturridge, who also missed a good chance from Oscar’s flick.
Albion were out on their feet towards the end. Claudio Jacob and Youssouf Mulumbu never stopped working in front of a back four in which Jonas Olsson and Gabriel Tamas, another called in at short notice to cover for injury, were rock-like.
Di Matteo again drew attention to what he feels are unnecessary demands made on players by midweek friendly internationals and defended his decision to make five changes which reflected that.
“The players I left out were not in a condition to play for 90 minutes,” he said. The Italian was in a black mood, his delayed appearance at the post-match press conference coming after he delivered an audible broadside to his squad in the dressing room after the whistle.
He had calmed down by the time he faced the media but hinted strongly that heads would roll, and conceded that the switch to more attacking tactics might have to be moderated.
“Maybe it is time to think about changes,” he said. “Not so much in individuals but in the way we play. Maybe we need to sacrifice a little bit of our attacking flair and be a bit defensive, to get a couple of positive results to get the confidence back.”
West Bromwich (4-2-3-1): Myhill; Jones, Tamas, Olsson, Ridgewell; Mulumbu, Yacob; Odemwingie, Morrison (Dorrans, 69), Gera (Brunt, 69); Long (Rosenberg, 79).
Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Cech; Aspilicueta, Cahill, Luiz, Bertrand; Mikel (Ramires, 79), Romeu (Oscar, 62); Sturridge, Hazard, Moses; Torres (Mata, 62).
Referee: Michael Oliver
Man of the match: Yacob (West Bromwich Albion)
Match rating: 7/10
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