Injury-hit Chelsea find cure in team spirit

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No matter how much money a club might have, a season can be derailed by a fragment of bone no thicker than a fingernail. Chelsea will be relieved that exploratory surgery on John Terry’s slipped disc has been successful and that their captain might return within a month, but that could still be enough to undermine their bid for a third successive Premiership.

In three league games without the England centre-back, Chelsea have conceded six goals, as opposed to nine in the 16 in which he has played.

After seeing Everton, Wigan and Reading all upset an increasingly shaky back four, Fulham must be daring to dream of a first away victory since 1979 in the west London derby on Saturday. Where Victor Anichebe, Emile Heskey and Leroy Lita have gone, there is no reason to believe Fulham’s Brian McBride, probably a greater aerial threat than any of them, will not follow.

Given the amount of money Chelsea have spent – and, should they wish to, can spend in the January transfer window – it is difficult to have sympathy with Jose Mourinho’s complaints about his injury list, and yet he is unfortunate to have lost the twin pillars of his defence at the same time.

Had goalkeeper Petr Cech – or even reserve Carlo Cudicini – been there, dominating the box, Chelsea probably would have coped, but Hilario looks what he is: a third choice who was expected only to have to play in extremis and the early rounds of the League Cup.

It is not just that Terry is so powerful in the air; there is also his presence, his ability to organise and to galvanise. Chelsea had dominated long swathes of the second half at Everton, but when Joseph Yobo put the home side 2-1 in front with a simple header from a corner, the only surprise was that the goal had not come sooner.

Ricardo Carvalho is a fine defender, a superb reader of the game and a master of the more subtle arts, but with only Khalid Boulahrouz or Paulo Ferreira alongside him, he has been exposed. Mourinho has always insisted on the importance of a streamlined first-team squad, but the summer sales of William Gallas and Robert Huth are hurting.

That is not necessarily a criticism. For one thing, he did everything he could to prevent Gallas leaving, and then replaced him with Boulahrouz, who has so far played well below the standards he set at Hamburg last season.

For another, Mourinho’s argument in favour of a 25-man squad is that it promotes team spirit, and it is doubtful whether without that spirit they could have found the late goals that salvaged victories at Everton and Wigan.

Perversely, those wins make Chelsea rather more likeable: it would have been the hardest of neutral hearts that did not soar when Didier Drogba seized on Andriy Shevchenko’s knockdown to smack that 30-yard shot on the turn over Tim Howard to give them a 3-2 win over Everton. This, suddenly, was football of heroes and glory once again, not the grinding efficiency of the accounts ledger.

It also hinted at the truth that money will never entirely rule the game. A big squad brings its own problems, and only a side with a sense of itself as a team can find the inner character to pluck those last-minute winners from nowhere. The question is one of balance, and of that history will be Mourinho’s judge.

It could be argued that Chelsea are fortunate to have Drogba in the form he is in when they have most needed it, particularly with Shevchenko and Saloman Kalou uninspired. And there is luck as well as ability that has sent so many late long-range shots – not just Drogba at Everton, but Frank Lampard in the same game and Michael Essien against Arsenal – screaming into the corner, but that is a luck with its roots in belief.

Mourinho’s greatest triumph may prove to have been to retain that team spirit, despite the vast wealth surrounding it.

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