Chelsea’s win over Manchester United did not under any circumstances vindicate manager Rafael Benitez’s decision to rest pretty much the entire team on Saturday against Southampton. Now obviously another Wembley appearance, a cup semi-final and the possibility of winning a trophy is something I want however given our precarious league position it isn’t and shouldn’t be our priority. We are fourth in the league, only two points ahead of Arsenal in fifth and this year we do not have the safety net of winning the Champions League so it is imperative that we finish in the top four. Now that might sound very Arsene Wenger-esque putting Champions League qualification ahead of a trophy but given that we won the big one last season I doubt many, if any, Chelsea fan would mind if we put a good league finish ahead of Benitez enhancing his CV with a trophy.
Our starting eleven for the match yesterday is our best eleven (well if you swap John Terry for Branislav Ivanovic) and it was no surprise to see we looked far more fluid than on Saturday. Against Southampton playing a front four of Oscar, Marko Marin, Victor Moses and Fernando Torres resulted in Torres playing for 90 minutes without having a single shot on or off target. Now it would be easy to blame precious Fernando here but the truth of the matter is the service in that match was awful, which isn’t a surprise given that front four have hardly, if ever, played together.
The match itself was awful for the first 45 minutes. Filled with half-chances and the odd swerving shot from Javier Hernandez, but the key moment in the first half is going to have an adverse effect on the rest of our season. Just past the 20th minute mark and Danny Welbeck had just sped past Ashley Cole when Cole pulled up. Now Cole didn’t play on Saturday because the magnificent Benitez rested him which meant Ryan Bertrand coming on. This led Bertrand to playing 160 minutes over the two matches therefore rendering Benitez’s decision to rest Cole redundant. This means we now have only one player who can play left-back for the next two weeks at least and given we play Spurs at home during that time (and the Wembley semi-final) our task to finish third has gotten even trickier. The only other player in the Chelsea squad who has played left-back for the first team is one Florent Malouda but it would take at least twelve more players getting injured for him to be considered in the first team fray.
The second half was far better than the first and the quality of both sets of players really shone through. Juan Mata’s pass and Demba Ba’s finish for the first, and only, goal is indescribable. It is easy to say Fernando Torres wouldn’t have even tried that hooked volley like Ba did but going by his luck it would have ended in row Z as opposed to the back of the net. Mata by his standards had a poor game but somehow he managed to provide a wonderful assist for the goal underlining why it is imperative he stays fit for the rest of the season. Demba Ba himself looked a lot livelier than Fernando Torres, however my only issue with playing Ba is that we tend to go long far too often just like we did when Didier Drogba was leading the line. It can work at times especially when you have players like Oscar, Mata and Eden Hazard to win the second ball but too many times today Ba struggled to hold off the opposing defender meaning more often than not we lost possession and Manchester United had a chance to attack.
From an attacking point of view though, it was very good to see Mata and Hazard combine often with the latter seamlessly driving through Manchester United’s back line and he should have scored mid-way through the second half. Oscar looked a bit off the pace but that could be down to the number of games he has played this season including reaching the final of the Olympics tournament.
Defensively we were far more solid than in the first match and the one time United did get through Petr Cech produced a simply ridiculous point blank save to deny chief tormentor Javier Hernandez. Two of our best defenders were the ones who have had a poor season by their standards, Branislav Ivanovic and Ryan Bertrand. Ivanovic made quite a few interceptions and hardly looked troubled with pace and aerial balls. Bertrand didn’t have much to deal with it, much like on Saturday, but what he did have to do he did it well – unlike on Saturday. He was helped today by both Mata and Hazard tracking back.
Our best player though was John Mikel Obi, the laughing stock for many uneducated football fans. His ability to read the ball and break up the opposition’s play is so vital in this Chelsea squad filled with a plethora of attacking talent. His tackle led to Juan Mata assisting Ba’s goal and the fact that he plays allows David Luiz to go forward as it means Mikel will just plug the gap in the middle of defence. Arguably the best decision Chelsea have made this season is to give Mikel a new long term contract.
Overall it was a good win and certainly lifted the spirits around Stamford Bridge but someone at Chelsea needs to take The Interim One to one side and tell him that his ‘troffies’ are not important but finishing in the top four is of the utmost importance. A ‘troffie’ would be a good bonus however missing out on the Champions League will have serious repercussions for next season.