By Liam Twomey
Back in October, as his Manchester United side prepared to take on the Premier League leaders at Stamford Bridge, Sir Alex Ferguson appeared remarkably unworried.
“I wouldn't say this is the strongest Chelsea team,” he told reporters. “I think if you go back to [Jose] Mourinho's, they were formidable and really difficult to play against. That period of Didier Drogba, a younger John Terry and Frank Lampard, who one year got 30 goals from midfield – they'll never get that again. They were a really powerful team, hard to beat – and ruthless.”
Chelsea's potential run-in
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But whether he genuinely foresaw the trademark turmoil and self-destruction which lay ahead or simply sought to satisfy his own seemingly insatiable appetite for media mischief, the Scot’s withering assessment of the Blues has proved devastatingly accurate.
Since the brutal sacking of Roberto Di Matteo and poisonous imposition of Rafa Benitez in November, the gap between Chelsea and the Premier League summit has grown from four points to 22, and currently stands at 19. For months the Champions of Europe have not even been in the title discussion.
Admittedly, the woeful trophy defence of Manchester City has ensured there is little discussion of any kind to be had. United, despite obvious vulnerabilities and cup disappointments, are cruising to a record 20th league title. So easily, in fact, that even Sir Alex has admitted his surprise.
Yet City have still tasted domestic supremacy more recently than Chelsea, and the dominant nature of their victory over United on Monday suggests Manchester’s stranglehold over the Premier League will remain. Roman Abramovich is clearly capable of mounting a stern challenge to this increasingly apparent duopoly, but if it is to be so, much still needs to be done.
Given that Benitez will never be tolerated as a long-term presence, the appointment of a new manager would be a start. Or maybe an old manager. Jose Mourinho, assailed on all sides at Real Madrid, is once again fluttering his eyelashes at the Premier League, and a sensational summer return to the club for whom he made history appears an increasingly convenient marriage.
There are of course numerous obstacles, the most intimidating of which appears to be the need of both Mourinho and Abramovich to enjoy total control. Chelsea are also seeking to build a team with an easily discernible philosophy of vibrant attacking football, akin to Barcelona. The only philosophy adhered to by the Special One – so often the scourge of the Catalans – is winning.
|25/1||Chelsea are 25/1 with Bet365 to beat Manchester City 3-1 on Sunday
Mourinho – or indeed any other prospective Blues boss – would also no doubt expect another summer of investment. The key addition is widely expected to be a striker of true world-class pedigree to replace the faded Fernando Torres, and Radamel Falcao is the top target.
Mourinho is an avowed admirer of the prolific Colombian, who boasts as many league goals (22) as Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani this season while averaging far fewer shots per game (3.5). He got Abramovich’s attention by annihilating Chelsea in the Uefa Super Cup in Monaco back in August, and has since proved astonishingly adept at dismantling all manner of opponents.
His physicality and attitude would fit the Premier League, and the mere thought of him spearheading an attack which boasts the creative gifts of Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar is frightening. Many of Europe’s elite are circling Atletico Madrid’s star man, but winning this particular race could prove decisive for the future of this new Chelsea team.
Yet the club’s greatest need, even above such illustrious additions, is for a change of culture. The short-termism fermented by Abramovich’s infamous ‘sacking model’, as well as dictating colossal wastes of money, is simply not conducive to the ups and downs of a Premier League title challenge.
Interim managers and powerless caretakers are far more likely to try to line their own pockets with cup winners’ medals than attempt to haul back a points deficit; a fact that makes the club’s post-Mourinho record of six cup triumphs and just one Premier League title all the more significant.
If Abramovich can be convinced to think beyond the present and govern accordingly, Chelsea can once again set about becoming a dominant force at home and abroad. If not, Manchester’s claim to be considered the undisputed capital of English football will only strengthen.