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No celebrations, half-time rows and a subdued Tuchel: Miserable Chelsea must lift morale to avoid unwanted top-four tussle

5:00 PM MYT 19/01/2022
Cesar Azpilicueta Chelsea 2021-22
The Blues dropped points yet again at Brighton, leaving them looking nervously over their shoulder in the race to secure Champions League football

Normally, when a 25-yard, left-footed strike hits the back of the net, it is a moment of elation.

Yet, Hakim Ziyech stood expressionless, even after his pressure-bursting 28th-minute strike lifted Chelsea supporters off their seats at Brighton’s Amex Stadium on Tuesday evening.

The team-mates who ran over to congratulate him too failed to crack a smile, as if they were doing so out of politeness rather than expressing their thrill at taking the lead in a match they were otherwise struggling in.

Over on the sidelines, manager Thomas Tuchel remained motionless, as he was for much of the 1-1 draw in a far cry from the usual frantic persona he takes on during matches.

"[Even] in the reaction of the goal [we scored], you can see that we are tired," the German coach told BT Sport post-match. "We are relieved, but there is no joy."

Whether it is tiredness or misery at having seen their title hopes ended in the past few weeks, Chelsea fans might have forgiven their players for the lack of emotion they showed following Ziyech's strike.

What was more concerning, however, was the sight of Ziyech and star striker Romelu Lukaku having what was at best a heated debate, at worst a full-on row, both as they left the field at half-time and as they awaited kick-off in the second half.

It is clear that morale is low within the Chelsea dressing room, but the players must stick together if they are to salvage a season that could yet see them lift four trophies between now and the end of May.

Adam Webster's deserved second-half equaliser for Brighton means it is now just one win in their last seven league matches for the Blues, leaving them to be suddenly looking nervously over their shoulders towards the clutch of teams battling it out for places in the top four.

The west Londoners' run of four league matches without a win is also the worst such run for Tuchel himself since he managed Borussia Dortmund in October 2016.

He was sacked at the end of that season, and 2021's The Best FIFA Men's Coach of the Year must now show how much he has improved as a manager to avoid a similar fate this time around.

Excuses - both valid and otherwise - have been presented for the way in which Chelsea have fallen from being top of the table just over a month ago to now sitting 12 points behind Manchester City having played a game more than the leaders, but they will soon wear thin if results and performances continue to underwhelm.

For now, tiredness is - according to Tuchel - to blame for his side's recent malaise.

"We are mentally tired and physically tired. You can see it in our performance. It's as easy as that," he said.

"You can say it is an excuse or whatever, but it's like this. Look at our schedule - when we arrived at Man City we had the Carabao Cup in the week and they did not.

"Now we arrive here and they have more days to prepare and the whole week before to prepare.

"It's like this. We play since November. We are the team that plays and plays and plays. We need to recharge the batteries, disconnect. This is my feeling, and it's why I've given the players two days off."

Whether Chelsea are any more tired than their rivals is a difficult question to answer, but they would certainly be excused for some of their poor results given the circumstances.

Their first-choice wing-back duo, Reece James and Ben Chilwell, have both been lost to serious injuries, leaving Tuchel without two of his most dynamic playmakers at what is usually an attritional stage of the season.

They also had to overcome a Covid-19 outbreak that left them short on numbers, though not short enough to postpone any matches, meaning they continued to play twice a week and created minor fitness issues for some of their overworked key players.

To make matters worse, Lukaku’s unsanctioned interview with Sky Italia brought more negativity into the dressing room after the Belgium striker appeared to criticise Tuchel while speaking in glowing terms about his former club, Inter.

Despite all that, there have been some positive results, though they have mainly come in the Carabao Cup, a competition which will offer Chelsea one of of two opportunities to lift some silverware in February, as they also have the Club World Cup to focus their attention at the start of next month.

Those showpiece events are exciting and should be games that Chelsea can lift themselves out of their current funk for, but they must not distract from the main aim for the rest of the season: securing a top-four finish in the Premier League.

The Blues recently announced post-tax losses of £145.6 milion for the past year, and though that was in a large part due to the pandemic, it was a higher number than almost all Chelsea's rivals, showing the importance of qualifying for the Champions League for owner Roman Abramovich.

Currently, many of the clubs chasing Chelsea down are in better form than them, and given they have known their aim for the season is a top-four finish for much longer, they have come to terms with that fact and got on with the job in hand.

The European champions, on the other hand, look a little sorry for themselves at present, and fans would be forgiven for believing that playing for and coaching the club is becoming a chore, given the facial expressions of their heroes on the pitch and in the dugout.

The time for misery, however, is over. Chelsea have a job to do, starting with Sunday's clash against Tottenham at Stamford Bridge, and they must approach it with a refreshed outlook, rather than reluctance.