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New formation pays off for Chelsea

What a difference a week makes. Twelve goals in two games has put Chelsea right on the shoulder of Manchester United -- its opponent this weekend -- and given the Blues the Premier League's healthiest goal difference.

Having been eliminated from the Champions League by Jose Mourinho the week before, and held to a draw at Ewood Park in a lackluster display against Blackburn, even psychic Irene Hughes failed to see that coming. Carlo Ancelotti must have pulled something out of his sleeve.

There's been talk about Chelsea's aging core since at least 2008, but the grumbling cranked up a notch after Internazionale comfortably kept Chelsea quiet home and away. Ancelotti's continued selection of Michael Ballack, 33 going on 83, has attracted notable terrace ire, but he's not much closer to his pension than several others. Of the 11 players who've spent the most time on the pitch for the Blues this season, only three are under 29, a fact that hasn't escaped fans frustrated by the lack of opportunities afforded to promising youngsters such as Nemanja Matic and Gael Kakuta. It wasn't just the WAGs who were hoping for a spot of shopping on the continent this summer, either.

And yet, within days of taking only a point from Blackburn in the same jaded fashion as it had done at Hull and Birmingham City -- and without smuggling a troupe of FIFA Young Players of the Year onto the bus -- Chelsea has administered comprehensive beatings to Portsmouth, which allowed five unanswered goals, and Aston Villa, who was grateful when the final whistle halted Chelsea at seven. Villa may be experiencing their annual March slump, but they were not expected to capitulate in the same fashion as poor Pompey. What was lurking inside Ancelotti's tailored cuffs was not the customary bunch of flowers but a switch in formation, and it had the same ta-dah! effect.

"When we play our best football, we are able to overcome any defense," Ancelotti told reporters. And it's clear that Chelsea's best football comes not shaped like a diamond, but in a rampant 4-3-3.

The average age of the team that started against Villa was 28 and a half -- which makes them six months older than those starting at Stamford Bridge against Inter. The 4-3-3 requires no little courage, but it also affords Chelsea greater fluidity; in the final half hour against Villa, Yuri Zhirkov (26), Joe Cole (28), Frank Lampard (31) and Florent Malouda (29) bore down on Brad Friedel'sgoal frequently and with menace, aided by the distribution of Deco (32) and the thoughtful movement of Nicolas Anelka (30). Legs that looked old in a narrow diamond found their stride in lustrous, rippling attacking play.

Though there's little doubt that some of Chelsea's squad will soon need putting out to pasture, this braver formation may just enable them to see the season out at a youthful canter. Whether Ancelotti will have the derring-do to take it to Old Trafford, mind you, is another matter.

Fellow west Londoners Fulham, meanwhile, provides an altogether different conundrum. How does a side comprehensively beat Manchester United (and keep a clean sheet), Liverpool and Juventus -- the last with a goal of sublime quality fromClint Dempsey -- but fail to win a league game away from home, other than at Fratton Park? Roy Hodgson'steam has attracted some richly deserved compliments this season, and has another handsome European night in prospect as it takes on Wolfsburg in this week's Europa League quarterfinal. Fulham also made it to the quarterfinals of the FA Cup and is all but safe in the league, despite racking up two fewer points than by this time last year; rare is the Fulham supporter who'd swap a promising European run for a few more Premier League points, given the circumstances.

But going down 2-0 to Hull -- Hull -- last weekend, having fielded a weakened lineup ahead of the Wolfsburg tie, caps off a month without a league win; Fulham has 11 points from its last 13 matches. Hodgson insists that to fulfill the heavy schedule of seven or eight games per month, the squad must be rotated.

"I don't think it's fair for anyone to suggest that we can do that with 11 players," he told the club's Web site, and fair enough. It seems a shame, though, that any attempt to replicate last season's assault on the upper reaches of the Premier League table should be so impoverished by Fulham's European travails. Hodgson has listed three times as many players in his squads this season, so the mismatch between what the first team is capable of and what the fringe players contribute when called upon suggests investment will be needed in the summer if Fulham hopes to have an impact on more than one front.

In response to an open letter from co-owner David Sullivan branding his West Ham team shambolic, coach Gianfranco Zola had, just as publicly, wondered: "What the hell is going on?"

It was a question that didn't go away after Saturday's meeting with Stoke, which brought a sixth straight defeat for the Hammers. With only teams above them left to play (needless to say, they didn't beat any of them earlier in the season), and their immediate neighbors Wigan (16th) and Hull (18th) having a game in hand, the Hammers are hanging onto the 17th spot by the skin of their goal difference. Having chewed the cud at home in Sardinia, Zola says he won't leave the club now and is confident that it "can turn it around."

Which is an altogether more considered response than several managers have mustered in recent weeks in the face of far milder provocation. Yep, I'm talking about you, Roberto Mancini. If you didn't catch it, Mancini launched himself atDavid Moyes during Manchester City's goalless draw with Everton, attempting to hurry along a throw-in but instead getting himself and Moyes sent to the stands and attracting an FA charge. The FA's Respect campaign, aimed at protecting referees from the bilious barking of players and managers alike, is doomed to fail -- unless the men in black actually give out the punishments they're entitled to for dissent and so on. And since it would probably result in a whole round of fixtures being abandoned, that won't happen.

So perhaps the FA should focus its efforts on a Respect campaign aimed at managers, who appear to have no respect for themselves whatsoever when prowling the technical area. Besides the fact that the wise money would have been on Moyes breaking Mancini's nose with a swift flick of the wrist, it's just unseemly. Watching red-faced, middle-aged men wagging their finger in the red faces of other middle-aged men has become an absorbing Premier League sideshow, but it must be costing the NHS a fortune in blood pressure medication.

Marcus Hahnemann faced a fellow American goalkeeper for the second weekend in a row as Wolves took on Tim Howard's Everton. Both kept a clean sheet to keep their hopes of going to South Africa nice and healthy -- Hahnemann joked that he was in such impressive form that even the watching England manager, Fabio Capello, was interested.

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