By Chris Myson
Having initially made a bright start to the new season, Chelsea’s campaign has taken a turn for the worse in recent weeks, piling the pressure on Andre Villas-Boas.
The weekend’s 2-1 defeat to Liverpool was their third loss in four Premier League games – coming shortly after the London derby defeats by Arsenal and QPR – meaning the Blues are already 12 points behind table-toppers Manchester City.
Another recent disappointing result, a draw in Belgium against Genk, means Chelsea travel to face Bayer Leverkusen on Wednesday with work still to do if they are to secure their Champions League progression.
Villas-Boas said after the latest loss that his side can still compete for silverware in all four major competitions, but stressed that the fixtures between now and the end of December will be vital if his side are to stand a chance of resurrecting their season.
Ahead of a crucial run of games which take place between now and the end of 2011, Goal.com suggest five key players who could be crucial if the Blues are going to get their campaign back on track before the final destination of this season’s major trophies is decided.
Ever since making his £23.5 million (€27.3m) move from Valencia in the summer and enjoying a goalscoring debut against Norwich City, Juan Mata has looked to be worth every penny of his transfer fee.
One of the real plus points of Chelsea’s season to date, the Spain international has added the flair, creativity and guile that had been missing from the London club’s attacking pedigree for a number of years.
Whether it is cutting in from the right, whipping crosses in from the left or threading passes through to the frontmen from central areas, Mata has adapted to English football as quickly as anyone could have hoped for.
Carrying a goal threat too – as displayed by his stunning strike against Arsenal – the former Valencia star could become the complete package.
One of the many reasons cited for the defeat to Liverpool, though, was that when going forward, the Blues seemed unable to get their key players, such as Mata, enough service or opportunities to influence proceedings in dangerous positions.
As a result, Villas-Boas needs to tinker his system accordingly to ensure Mata is the focal point for his side. The 23-year-old has already proved he has the ability to produce high quality when it really matters and offers a skillset that most his team-mates do not possess.
The continued absence of Alex in the centre of defence has been a source of confusion for many of those following Chelsea this season.
There is some talk that the 29-year-old is soon to be on the way out of Stamford Bridge while other reports suggest there are personal issues in the dressing room – but Villas-Boas needs results now and has admitted he cannot wait until January, when any potential reinforcements may arrive.
In the three Premier League games the former PSV stopper has played in this season, Chelsea have kept two clean sheets and conceded just one goal. This is compared to the 16 occasions they have been breached in the nine games he has not been selected for.
With John Terry struggling on and off the pitch, David Luiz continuing his erratic tendencies and Villas-Boas not completely convinced by Branislav Ivanovic playing in the centre, the temptation must be there to bring the Brazilian back into the fold.
While Alex is not immune from flaws – his mobility may not be a strong point and he is also prone to the occasional error – his strength and organisation may be needed at the back if Chelsea are to stop leaking goals and restore some much-needed confidence in the short-term.
While the signing of Mata has given Chelsea a focal creative element in their attacking unit, some would argue their midfield is currently lacking that priceless ability to play a killer pass or create openings to make a difference in the tightest of games.
|FIVE PLAYERS WHO ARE COSTING AVB|
|John Terry - With an ongoing police investigation lingering over the England captain, it's not only the defender's ageing legs that are cause for concern.
John Obi Mikel - Another dire performance against Liverpool made it clear that the Nigerian simply isn't up to scratch at the heart of Chelsea's midfield.
David Luiz - The former Benfica man is threatening to go from cult hero to zero at Stamford Bridge, with erratic performances at the leaving Blues' fans anxious.
Florent Malouda - Another ageing star whose days at the top look numbered with the verve and invention of his game now little more than a distant memory.
Fernando Torres - Having selected Didier Drogba and brought on Daniel Sturridge ahead of the Spaniard, AVB clearly doesn't fully trust the struggling £50m man.
Raul Meireles is a player in their current ranks who can dictate the play from central midfield, creating chances for his team-mates and has already shown in his Premier League career so far that he can pop up and grab goals at vital times too.
The ex-Porto man has not started a league game for a month and with the current trio looking like they were running out of ideas for long spells in recent matches, a change in personnel is required in midfield as Villas-Boas looks to revitalise his team ahead of a run of fixtures where further slip-ups are not an option.
Bringing Meireles into the midfield could see Ramires revert back into the holding role in place of Mikel, or indeed a complete revamp could see promising starlet Oriol Romeu given a run in the side as well as the Portuguese playmaker, with Lampard the only midfielder currently showing enough form to warrant a guaranteed start.
Another option could be to move the under-fire Luiz into a holding midfield position, which could allow him to play his natural game, expressing himself with the ball at his feet and making his presence felt with physical challenges in an area where his lack of positional awareness may not be quite as costly.
But whatever Villas-Boas chooses to do with the base of his three in midfield, Meireles - who impressed in the double-header of Champions League games against Genk - needs to start playing more of a prominent role than he is currently, before the end of 2011.
If the Blues are to start giving their big names in attack better and more effective service, the inclusion of the 28-year-old is the way to go, with his presence also likely to provide a greater overall balance to the side.
As of two months ago - if you read some sections of the football press – Frank Lampard’s ageing legs were gone and his career as an effective player for England and Chelsea was all but over.
Ahead of the game against Leverkusen, the midfielder is on a fine run of form having recently captained his country against Spain and scored the winning goal at Wembley.
For his club, Lampard has put in some influential performances and gone from a bit-part player to an integral part of Villas-Boas’ plans for the campaign.
Ever since he put in a man-of-the-match performance away to Valencia and followed it up with a hat-trick against Bolton Wanderers in the next game, the experienced campaigner has found himself in the team every week and recently netted another winning goal against Blackburn Rovers.
A player who has come out on the right side of topsy-turvy seasons before and consistently proved his critics wrong; Villas-Boas would be foolish to push Lampard back to the sidelines as he tries to find a winning formula.
Daniel Sturridge was frustrated after being left out of the starting line-up against Liverpool, but even though he wasn’t named in the first XI, the match did appear to suggest he has moved in front of Fernando Torres in the pecking order.
The England international made an instant impact after coming on at half-time against the Reds - scoring the equaliser - and has more Premier League goals to his name this season (five) than his more experienced rivals Torres, Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka combined.
That comes despite missing the first three games of the league season due to suspension and continuously being asked to play in an unfamiliar position out wide, with the player himself openly admitting he would prefer to be used as the central striker in Chelsea’s 4-3-3 approach.
With Torres seemingly unable to reproduce his past performances and Drogba’s powers visibly declining, perhaps a cornerstone of Villas-Boas’ re-building project should be trusting the in-form young striker to lead the way in attack.
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