The only sound that resonated louder than the groans from the Shed End on Saturday evening was the cheering emanating from Anfield and The Etihad. The piercing blow of the referee’s whistle brought with it José Mourinho’s first ever home defeat as Chelsea manager in either spell. This becomes more astounding when you realise that he had also not lost at home during his time as Porto or Inter head coach. Yet more remarkable still, was that this heaviest of blows came at the hands of lowly Sunderland; bottom of the league and relegation had been looming as a greater probability with each passing week. Not exactly the perfect preparation then for a season-defining trio of matches taking place over just 8 days.
The first match approaching fast on the horizon is the trip to Spain to face up to Atletico Madrid; the surprise package of the La Liga season and real title contenders. Chelsea players will need to recover quickly both physically and mentally from the demoralising defeat at home to Sunderland. They were certainly not without chances, and for spells throughout the game did indeed pepper Mannone’s goal, but as has been all too frequent an occurrence for Chelsea, the pressure did not translate into goals. Ivanovic had a header deflected onto the bar from a corner and Ramires could only head wide when under significant pressure from Seb Larsson.
They would go on to rue those missed chances and that lack of a cutting edge severely hampered their chances of victory. In order to progress to the Champions League final, these issues cannot be allowed to reappear. Atletico have a very solid spine to their team which is a fine blend of youthful exuberance and the experience of older heads. Courtois; likely to feature against his parent club, has been a rock between the sticks, Godin has had a new lease of life at centre-back, Tiago patrols central midfield excellently, and Diego Costa is simply lethal. The flair possessed by the Spanish league leaders will ensure that missed opportunities will be punished, and they themselves are unlikely to gift Chelsea anything at the other end. Nothing less than Mourinho’s tactical brilliance and motivational prowess will be required.
One option at José’s disposal is to cleverly use the presence of cup-tied players in the squad to his advantage. Both Nemanja Matic and Mohammed Salah are unable to play for Chelsea in the Champions League due to their appearances in this season’s group stage for Benfica and F.C. Basel respectively. Therefore, they can play no part at all in either mid-week fixture and so should be amongst the freshest for the trip to Anfield. Chelsea’s formation and play-style demands energetic performances from the central midfield and wide players as Mourinho demands that they fulfil their defensive duties in addition to joining in with the attack.
As has been the trend recently, Lampard and David Luiz will most likely form the solid base to their midfield against Atletico with Matic returning to face Liverpool. Salah should also play a role from the start on Sunday as he will inject pace and enthusiasm to whichever forward role he is deployed in. Eden Hazard; Chelsea’s brilliant Belgian, will be touch and go as to whether he features against Atletico. Since damaging his lower calf in the early stages of The Blues’ second leg triumph against PSG, he has not trained. I am sure that José will give his star man every opportunity to play as, following the home defeat to Sunderland, he may see the Champions League as the best bet for silverware. His sharpness will inevitably not be to his usual high levels having had no match practice, but an appearance as a 60th minute substitute may well be on the cards. Even at 75%, the tricky winger has the ability to change any game.
The trip to Spain on Tuesday may only be a short one in terms of actual distance travelled, but depending on the outcome, it could prove to be highly draining for all players concerned. Anything other than a positive result during the week, combined with the loss to Sunderland, will have a drastic effect on squad morale. With Liverpool riding high after their hard-fought 3-2 victory at Norwich, they will be in a confident mood when Chelsea come to Anfield this Sunday. Regardless of mid-week events, José surely has to field his strongest possible eleven. Any indication that the Champions League tie is being prioritised will only serve to heap further unwanted pressure on the return leg.
As has been correctly noted on several occasions this season by the Chelsea boss, Liverpool do not have mid-week commitments to tire them out or distract their minds and so can have a week of dedicated training and recuperation. Mourinho has repeatedly drawn attention to the advantage this has brought them, and it may be the difference on Sunday. Sturridge could return to face his old team; fit and ready to prove a point, and the trickery and pace of Coutinho and Sterling could be the undoing of the tiring legs in Chelsea’s defence.
It is not inconceivable that The Blues will play host to Atletico next Tuesday having lost 3 games on the bounce. Should this be the case, and then be compounded by a Champions League exit and Stamford Bridge, their season would effectively be over. I am sure that this point will have been hammered home by Mourinho and his staff to the players. The importance of this 8 day period cannot be overestimated; not only is it season-defining for sure, but it could also determine the calibre of player recruited in the summer and so have a knock-on effect for seasons to come. I personally cannot wait to see how it all plays out, as it certainly promises a highly dramatic fortnight in the world of football.