Chelsea’s season is falling apart, but can Rafa Benitez fix the mess at Stamford Bridge?
Their Champions League defence over before it even began, Chelsea must now try to salvage a season that threatens to unravel before their eyes.
Wednesday’s 6-1 win at home to FC Nordsjaelland was not enough to carry the Blues into the last 16 and the consolation of a Europa League berth is likely to be viewed as a booby prize at Stamford Bridge.
Owner Roman Abramovich has not invested his millions to see Chelsea compete in a second-tier tournament and interim manager Rafael Benitez will find it difficult to juggle his resources between competitions.
Benitez’s popularity will not have been helped by Chelsea’s ignominious exit from the competition they won less than seven months ago, but the Club World Cup provides an immediate opportunity to move forward.
After visiting Sunderland on Saturday – a game Benitez described as “my only target” – Chelsea fly to Japan, where they will start as favourites to win a tournament in which they have never previously competed.
Benitez prevailed in the inter-continental contest in 2010 with his previous club, Inter Milan, and success could buy him time with the sections of the Chelsea support who have vowed never to accept him.
However, the timing of the Club World Cup, which concludes just before English football’s hectic Christmas schedule, means Chelsea face a gruelling end to the year.
Starting with either the final or the third-place play-off in the Club World Cup on December 16, they will have to play seven times in the space of just 22 days.
With a small core of only 13 players who have started more than five league games this season, it threatens to leave Benitez’s squad gasping for breath.
Chelsea hope to welcome stalwarts John Terry and Frank Lampard back from injury soon, but although the return of two such strong personalities will inevitably galvanise the squad, it also raises thorny questions.
With Terry 31 and Lampard 34, neither player can be said to represent Chelsea’s future, but Benitez’s interim status makes it difficult for him to adopt a long-term strategy concerning the team’s evolution.
His two immediate predecessors — Andre Villas-Boas and Roberto Di Matteo — both failed to handle the transition from old to new, and with Benitez keen to land the role on a permanent basis, he may not be inclined to take risks by marginalising influential players.
Fernando Torres scored twice in the Nordsjaelland rout but his dismal form has become synonymous with the club’s recent struggles, and with Daniel Sturridge reportedly angling for a move away, Chelsea appear set to move for a striker in the January transfer window.
Atletico Madrid’s all-action Colombian centre-forward Falcao has been touted as a likely target, but he will not be cheap and Abramovich has already invested heavily in pre-season.
The 3-1 loss at West Ham United on Saturday marked Chelsea’s seventh league game without a win — their worst sequence in 17 years — and the two Manchester clubs are already galloping into the distance.
Chelsea trail champions Manchester City by seven points and leaders Manchester United by 10, but Benitez says his absolute priority, first and foremost, is to improve performances on the pitch.
“At the moment, we just have to look at the game in front of us and what we need to do to win it, then we look at the next game, and then the next,” he wrote in his programme notes on Wednesday.
“That is how you have to focus — if we begin to improve the things we are trying to do on the pitch, then the results will improve and things will start to look more positive.”
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