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Chelsea’s success: Proof that balance is key



Chelsea are surely on the brink of wrapping up the league title now. I think I can say that with a certain degree of assuredness, as they sit six points adrift of Manchester City going into April and with a game in hand to boot. They have a slightly superior goal difference, minimal injury concerns and plenty of players in rich enough form to see them across the line. It has by no means been the perfect season – crashing out of the Champions League and FA Cup early will be seen by many as obvious failures – but league success is what counts more than any, Jose Mourinho will no doubt insist.

What have Chelsea had though that their rivals lack this season? Their scoring record is about the same as Manchester City’s and Arsenal’s behind them, while their goals against column is only marginally less than any of the top five. Even the Blues’ record against the rest of this season’s top seven teams has been relatively unimpressive, despite being regarded as a critical component of league winning formulas in the past. They have only collected 14 points from 27 available thus far, worse than City’s (15/27), United’s (17/27) and Liverpool’s (16/30) records thus far. Statistically that could point to them having a nervy run in with three such fixtures remaining, but with a potential nine point advantage going into these games it would still take a momentous collapse for Chelsea to relinquish their grip now.

Though not starkly apparent however, Mourinho’s team’s performances suggests they warrant their impending glory. For what they have that their chasing rivals lack is a precise degree of balance to their squad and usual line-up, which prevents opposition, especially the lesser sides in the league, from taking anything from them. The ‘big’ matches become less important if so-called routine results are near impeccable, and Chelsea have shown that this season, justifying their uninspired top seven form by taking 53 points from 60 against the remaining thirteen sides – just shy of a formidable 90% efficiency rate. Compare that to Manchester City’s 46/63 (73%) record and the difference is clear: taking as many points from lesser teams takes away the pressure from high profile fixtures.

Results would suggest that Chelsea’s form this season has marked an architectural shift in emphasis. Last season it was the opposite end of the scales on which the Blues found themselves, as they took 27/36 against top seven sides, but only managed about 70% of points from the rest of the league. Though they fared better than Manchester City and Liverpool in ‘big’ matches – doing the double over both even – these sides managed to scrape ahead of Chelsea by hitting close to 80% efficiency against lesser sides. Over a campaign of such tight margins, it was the six or seven more points gained against beatable teams that decided the final league standings, not the two or three extra points won against their surrounding rivals.

This time around, Mourinho has constructed a squad tailor-made for avoiding slip ups against teams the bookies would have them odds-on to comfortably take care of. Unlike most of their Premier League rivals, Chelsea have a balance to their line-up which is designed to avoid defeat. While better quality sides are capable of upping the ante to match this Chelsea side in a one-off showdown, most inferior teams are incapable of breaking down this unit without the help of a very bad off-day – something Mourinho’s teams through the years have typically very rarely shown.

Urging Roman Abramovich to splash out €25 million to bring Nemanja Matic back to Stamford Bridge, was one of the best decisions Mourinho has made in his second spell as Chelsea manager. He is the exact kind of player the Portuguese likes to build his team around – solid, efficient and, let’s be honest, hardly an exciting prospect going forward. Costinha, Makelele, Zanetti and Khedira have all satisfied similar roles under ‘the Special One’ in the past, and Mourinho’s knack of picking out the ideal ‘boring’ player is uncanny. Matic is the perfect player to hold anchor while the rest of the midfield and attackers pile forward, and he is a player of the style, consistency and quality that Chelsea have missed for the last few years. It is hardly coincidence, surely, that the Serb’s absence coincided with Chelsea’s defeat to Newcastle in December, and then their late collapse against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League; he provides the cover that gives Fabregas et al. creative freedom, and the team’s success this season has become nearly completely reliant on this balance.

Against lesser sides this balance is vital as they often lack the quality or wherewithal to counteract it. Of course, there is a lot more to it tactically than simply playing Matic in a deep role and letting the rest of the midfield bomb forward – if that was the case then every team would attempt something similar and football would be dull and predictable – but he at least suits Mourinho’s general strategic approach and lives up to his high disciplinary standards. It is this latter point that has been one of Manchester City’s big failings this season, as Fernando and Fernandinho have often been found lacking defensively; allowing Javi Garcia’s conservative but quiet effectiveness to leave for Zenit last summer has perhaps not proved as inconsequential as it appeared at the time.

None of this is to say that Chelsea’s team is perfect, as their absence in Europe’s latter stages details. John Obi Mikel is hardly even close to a high enough standard of replacement when Matic is missing, and there is still some way to go towards moulding that typically feared Mourinho-esque defence he built success on in the past. However, what is clear for now at least, is that Chelsea are ahead of their major domestic competitors. Manchester City’s need for squad rebuilding has been talked about on this website already in some detail, while Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United still need major investment and character-building to mount a serious title challenge next season.

For now, Jose Mourinho has struck the perfect on-field balance between ‘boring’ and ‘flair’ at Chelsea, and none of his Premier League rivals have been able to do the same. And it is for this reason that the Blues will likely lift their fourth Premier League trophy come the end of May.

Jonathan is a football lover based in Dublin. He is an especially keen fan of Italian Serie A, and thinks Guti Hernandez's assists may have been the work of sorcery. Struggles to forgive his father's upbringing as a Saint Mirren fan.


Chelsea 4-0 Hull City – Willian plays himself into Champions League contention

Jake Jackman




Chelsea continued their upturn in form with a convincing 4-0 win over Hull City in the FA Cup. The Blues were overwhelming favourites for the tie, but they had to get the job done and they did so effectively, scoring four times in the first-half.

They would have had one eye on the Champions League tie against Barcelona that is upcoming and that led to Antonio Conte making several changes.

The Italian decided to rest key players such as Eden Hazard, Ngolo Kante and Cesar Azpilicueta. It was the right decision as they progressed with comfort. Here are three talking points from the match:

Olivier Giroud is off the mark

One huge positive to come out of the game for the hosts was Olivier Giroud’s first goal for the club. He signed in January to provide competition for Alvaro Morata and his performances have been encouraging since signing, but to hit the back of the net takes the pressure off the Frenchman.

The signing carried relatively little risk for Chelsea as the striker has lots of experience in England and his consistency is already shining through in a Blues’ shirt.

Early into the game, he had a great opportunity to open his account, but he blazed a volley over the bar. It was a difficult chance as the ball was lifted over the defence to play him in, but a striker of his calibre should have done better.

Three goals were scored and he didn’t score one of them. If he had finished the match without scoring, it would have been talked about and that is why his goal just before half-time will relieve the pressure from him.

The rest of his game was excellent as he got two assists and linked up the play well from the front-line. Although he was brought in to be the back-up striker, Conte may give him the start against Barcelona as he is the player in form.

Hull City showed fight in the second half

The contest was over by the time the players stepped back out for the second-half, but Hull City showed fight and commitment to keep the score down to 4-0.

Nigel Adkins knows the importance of every mental victory when battling against relegation and to draw the second half can provide the players with confidence ahead of a return to league action.

Their performance was markedly improved as they created good opportunities and came close to scoring from the penalty spot. David Meyler stepped up and saw his penalty saved, but that didn’t see the players lose focus as they continued to create opportunities. During the match, they had 10 shots to Chelsea’s 14, which shows that they were far from embarrassed. They just didn’t have the quality in the final third that their Premier League opposition did possess.

It would be a huge blow for Hull City to suffer back-to-back relegations and their manager will be aware of that. This match against Chelsea was a good occasion, but it was far from a priority and their defeat won’t live too long in the memory.

They are currently 21st in the Championship and only above the bottom three by one point. Their far superior goal difference provides encouragement, but they must show this level of commitment until the end of the season if they are to avoid the drop.

Willian proved his quality before the return of the Champions League

Rotation can cause problems in the FA Cup, but in this case, it provided an opportunity to those that are on the fringes of the first-team to play themselves into contention for the Champions League.

Willian is an interesting case as he does feature prominently, but he isn’t a guaranteed first-team starter, as Pedro often gets the nod to start ahead of him.

Willian was excellent against Hull City and certainly gave his manager some food for thought ahead of the match with Barcelona. He completed six dribbles, attempted four shots and made three key passes as he terrorised the opposition defence. On the day, he scored twice, but he easily could have got a hat-trick.

Antonio Conte will be aware that his team’s big weakness is an over-reliance on Eden Hazard. The return of Cesc Fabregas goes some way to providing some support to the Belgian, but if Chelsea can get Willian playing to this level consistently, that would be a positive. He is more dynamic than Pedro and offers more flair to the attack. This performance could see him start against Barcelona.

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Chelsea 3-0 West Bromwich Albion: Three talking points from Stamford Bridge

Rob Meech brings us three talking points from Stamford Bridge as an Eden Hazard inspired Chelsea dismantled a struggling West Bromwich Albion side.

Rob Meech



Photo: Reuters

Chelsea eased the pressure on Antonio Conte after a brace from Eden Hazard saw off basement boys West Bromwich Albion at Stamford Bridge.

It had been a troubling week for the Blues, following back-to-back heavy defeats against Bournemouth and Watford that had cast serious doubts over Conte’s position as manager.

But Hazard netted twice, either side of a goal from Victor Moses to complete a routine victory over the Baggies, who lost loan star Daniel Sturridge to injury after just three minutes.

Chelsea leapfrog Tottenham Hotspur into fourth spot as the battle for the top four heats up, while West Brom remain seven points adrift of safety.

Here are three talking points…

Talismanic Hazard comes to the rescue again

Just days after he was voted as Belgium’s player of the year by his peers, Hazard underlined his ability as a footballer of rare class with another brace to take his tally to 11 for the season.

Chelsea’s number 10 has an excellent scoring record against West Brom, one which he improved upon with a display that was too good for the Baggies to handle.

Hazard is a talismanic performer and when he hits his straps, the rest of the team feed off him.

Hazard combined with new boy Olivier Giroud to slam home his first of the evening, which eased the tension at Stamford Bridge.

The 27-year-old added his second and rounded off the scoring late in the second half, slamming the ball past visiting keeper Ben Foster.

Back in the top four as a result of this victory, Hazard will be the key to Chelsea’s hopes of qualifying for next season’s Champions League.

With him in their ranks, anything is possible.

Conte relieved as the pressure lifts

One man who will be extremely grateful for Hazard’s dazzling display is Conte.

The Italian seemed to be on the brink after last week’s 4-1 loss to Watford, which came hot on the heels of a similarly catastrophic result at home to Bournemouth.

Conte’s prickly demeanour and comments in press conferences had led some to speculate that he was goading the Chelsea board into sacking him, less than a year after he steered the club to the Premier League title.

Either way, it’s clear he retains the full support of the Stamford Bridge faithful, which was vocal in its support for Conte throughout the game, chanting his name with regularity.

Conte himself was typically demonstrative on the touchline, bellowing instructions and celebrating each of the goals as his players repaid him with an improved performance.

Whether he will be in the dugout next season remains to be seen, but for now at least his job is more secure than it was a week ago.

Sturridge’s World Cup audition falls flat

In front of watching England manager Gareth Southgate, Sturridge would have been hopeful of making a positive impression following his shock move to West Brom in the January window.

The Liverpool striker made the switch in order to enhance his prospects of making the World Cup squad, which will be named in little over three months’ time.

Few doubt Sturridge’s quality, but his fragile body continually struggles to hold up under the intensity of Premier League football.

His withdrawal due to a hamstring strain less than three minutes on the clock was a monumental blow, both to him personally and West Brom’s ambitions of springing a surprise against Chelsea.

Although he is expected to be sidelined for only a couple of weeks, this latest setback again raises questions over his durability.

Sturridge’s opportunities to prove he deserves to be on the plane to Russia are fast running out.

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Which four of the ‘big-six’ clubs will qualify for next season’s Champions League?

Martyn Cooke



There are just 12 games remaining of the current Premier League season and, with Manchester City seemingly destined to secure the title, attention will now turn towards the battle to secure a place in the top-four.

There are only three places available to share between Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea and Liverpool and two of those clubs will be have to be content with competing in the Europa League next season.

Here, The Boot Room predicts who will finish in the top four at the end of the season…


There was once a time when the possibility of Arsene Wenger and Arsenal failing to qualify for the Champions League was unthinkable, yet the Gunners are facing the realistic possibility of missing out on playing in Europe’s elite club competition for the second consecutive season.

This campaign they have been held back by their inconsistent and unpredictable form away from home and are playing catch-up with their rivals with a five-point gap emerging between themselves and fourth place.

There is a new sense of optimism around the Emirates Stadium after Wenger added Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan to his squad yet a defeat against Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday would all but end their hopes – qualifying through winning the Europa League could be a more realistic option.

Prediction: 6th

Manchester United

There is currently a slight sense of disappointment around Old Trafford this season that, despite obvious progress since the arrival of Jose Mourinho, the club have had to be content with seeing cross-city rivals Manchester City stroll their way towards the Premier League title.

It is difficult to imagine Manchester United missing out on a Champions League place as they already have a considerable buffer of seven points and undoubtedly have a squad that is full of quality and experience.

The arrival of Alexis Sanchez will provide additional impetus in the closing stages of the campaign and the only real danger is that their attention might be redirected towards challenging for the Champions League or FA Cup with the title already all but lost.

However, Mouirnho has his team ticking over nicely and it is likely that they will maintain their current league position.

Prediction: 2nd  


It has been a frustrating and increasing turbulent season at Stamford Bridge following the failure of Chelsea to build on last season’s title triumph.

Back-to-back defeats against Bournemouth and Watford have left the Blues clinging on to their place in the top four and there is now a realistic possibility that they may miss out on Champions League qualification.

Antonio Conte’s frustration with the club’s transfer policy has been clear to see since the summer and the off-pitch squabbling can only be a destabilising influence for the players.

Chelsea are certainly a team that are out of form and appear to be short of confidence and direction and it will be a true test of Conte’s managerial prowess to see if he can facilitate some sort of revival in the closing months of the season.

However, momentum is currently against them and they may well be one of the two clubs to miss out.

Prediction: 6th


You get the sense that it is always two steps forward followed by one step back at Anfield under Jurgen Klopp and you never know quite what to expect.

Liverpool continue to be consistently inconsistent as demonstrated by their recent, contrasting performances against Manchester City and Swansea City.

The arrival of Virgil van Dijk in the January transfer window is a boost, although recent games have suggested that he alone will not solve the club’s defensive frailties, whilst the sale of Phillip Coutinho is offset by the impressive array of attacking players that Klopp has collected.

If Liverpool can put together a good run of results then they will be able to capitalise on Antonio Conte’s woes as Chelsea and finish in the top four.

Prediction: 4th

Tottenham Hotspur

Tottenham Hotspur supporters will now have a taste for Champions League football after the success of their team in this year’s competition and they are hitting form at just the right moment in the Premier League.

Mauricio Pochettino’s side are unbeaten since mid-December and have plenty of momentum with the inspirational figure of Harry Kane continuing to his remarkable, prolific run of form in front of goal.

Much will depend on whether the England striker can stay fit until the end of the season whilst they also need Dele Alli to rediscover the sparkle that he has lost in recent months.

Tottenham face a season-defining fixture on Saturday when they face Arsenal in the North London derby but they should have enough quality to qualify for next season’s Champions League.

Prediction: 3rd

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