Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

To those engaged in what is increasingly looking like vain pursuit of Chelsea and in desperate need of a straw at which to clutch, the news that Arjen Robben has broken a bone in his foot must have seemed a godsend. Injuries, as Arsenal found to their cost two seasons ago when key players dropped at the denouement as though it were a Jacobean tragedy, can render flimsy the most formidable of leads.

Newcastle, praying that, 50 years after their last FA Cup triumph, they can emulate what Chelsea seem likely to achieve 50 years after their last league success, enter Sunday's fifth-round tie encouraged by the knowledge that they are facing blunted opposition.

Robben is Chelsea's most potent attacker, the spark that sets them crackling. The statistics are astonishing: in 16 Premiership matches with Robben, Chelsea have scored 41 goals, an average of 2.56 per game; without him they have managed just nine in 11, an average of 0.82. Robben is worth almost 1.75 goals a game.

It is not just that he is the best dribbler in the Premiership, it is that his movement and intelligence energises the whole forward line in a way that Joe Cole does not. Damien Duff is half the player without him, because when Robben is not there, defences know that the Irishman is Chelsea's only source of attacking width. With Robben, the assault can come down either flank, and rearguards are consequently stretched, giving Duff more space in which to operate.

In the 259 minutes Chelsea have played since Robben's injury forced him to leave the field against Blackburn, they have scored just once, a record all the less impressive when it is borne in mind that Everton played 82 of those minutes with 10 men. Yet there is little talk of crisis at Stamford Bridge, and their Premiership lead is still nine points.

There has been a shallowing of the ascent to glory, but there has been no dip; this Chelsea's defining quality is not the goals that they score, but the ones they do not concede. With or without Robben, Chelsea's defence just goes on extending records. There is a cavalier quality to Manchester United, a flimsy flamboyance to Arsenal, but Chelsea prize efficiency. It is more than two months since they last conceded in the league.

Jose Mourinho's system functions well enough not to be reliant on one individual - other, perhaps than Mourinho himself. Even without Robben's sparkle, the fallback of obduracy remains intact. They may be less watchable, but they are no more beatable.

That said, Mourinho has been fortunate with injuries. Robben is in his second lay-off, and Didier Drogba and Ricardo Carvalho have had their problems, but they are as nothing compared with the absences with which United and Arsenal have had to deal.

Robben, in any case, should be back by the beginning of April to add further impetus to the championship charge. If Chelsea's rivals are to take advantage of the deceleration of Chelsea's juggernaut, they have a little over a month to do so.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

Comments have not been enabled for this article.

Follow the topics in this article