In the distant days when the Chelsea crisis was in its infancy, Jose Mourinho suggested Manchester United would be disappointed only to be six points clear at the top of the Premiership. Chelsea remained well placed, he said, because United still had to travel to the Emirates Stadium, Anfield and Stamford Bridge.
The first of those fixtures comes on Sunday and, just to add to the significance of the weekend, goalkeeper Petr Cech is likely to return for Chelsea away to Liverpool on Saturday afternoon.
After a steady slew of bad news for the champions, this could, perhaps, be the start of the revival; providing, that is, Cech is physically and psychologically capable of dominating his box as he did before fracturing his skull. Certainly that is how Mourinho is playing it, referring to his goalkeeper as “a £50m footballer”.
Whatever the behind-the-scenes problems at Chelsea, and the issues of attacking shape after the signings of Andriy Shevchenko and Michael Ballack, the most obvious on-pitch weaknesses have been defensive – and those, largely, are matters of personnel. No matter how much money a club has, to lose both first and second-choice goalkeepers in the same game is going to be debilitating, particularly when it is compounded by the loss of John Terry, arguably the best defensive header of a ball in the world.
The 3-2 win against Everton is remembered as a fortunate victory because Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba scored screamers in the last 10 minutes. The truth is that Chelsea dominated to such an extent in the second half that in one five-minute period they enjoyed 89 per cent of the possession. The problem was a startling inability to defend the dead ball, which meant that Everton looked like scoring every time they got a corner.
Wigan did similarly – Emile Heskey looked like a player again – and the aura of invincibility was gone. Suddenly everybody knew that with Hilario in goal, flapping at the ball like a skittish seal, and without the towering presence of Terry in front of him, Chelsea were vulnerable to aerial attack. It was that deficiency, and the knee problem suffered by Khalid Boulahrouz, that led Mourinho to seek to sign an additional centre-back, which, in turn, led to his complaint after the Carling Cup draw at Wycombe that he was being prevented from adding to his squad for “club reasons”.
A compromise was reached, and Chelsea this week tried to sign the Bolton centre-back Tal Ben Haim, only to balk at the £3.5m fee. Their refusal to be held to ransom is understandable – although inflated fees for those with the deepest pockets are one of the few ways left of redistributing wealth in football – but there is something vaguely ludicrous for a club that spent £12m (plus £6m compensation to Manchester United) on Mikel John Obi, an untested 18 year old, to be unwilling to spend a fifth of that on fixing a specific problem.
That, though, is what happens when recruitment and team selection are dissociated. It is as though football has an in-built safety valve to prevent billionaire owners ever wholly controlling the game because their egos lead them to dabble in areas in which they have no expertise. Chelsea could yet end up being undone by efforts to shoe-horn Shevchenko into the starting eleven.
Who is signing the players at Chelsea has always been the source of some debate. Sven-Göran Eriksson is given credit for several of the early Abramovich purchases.
Under Mourinho, whoever is responsible – and youth development director Frank Arnesen has an input that Mourinho resents – recruitment has been indifferent. There have been successes – Drogba, Ricardo Carvalho, Michael Essien – but, even before Shevchenko and Ballack, there have been some shockers, notably Mateja Kezman, Asier Del Horno and Shaun Wright-Phillips.
Chelsea have wasted money in the past, but it is baffling that they should choose to rein in their spending now, just when it is most needed. There have been suggestions that they don’t want to lumber the club with Mourinho signings if he is to leave in the summer but, with the prognosis on Terry’s back injury rather less positive than it at first appeared, there is an urgent need for a new centre-back.
For the want of a nail a kingdom was lost? Little wonder Mourinho is frustrated.