Chelsea has rediscovered its fight and, in a 2–0 win over Arsenal, there was evidence of certain key players rediscovering their form. But there could be little real satisfaction derived from an ugly victory. It didn’t outplay or even outfight Arsenal. Rather, a trap was set and Arsenal, naively, stupidly, fell into it.
Still, it was three points, which at least removed the possibility that Chelsea might end the weekend on the bottom three. There had been talk earlier in the week that Chelsea’s players were beginning to weary of manager Jose Mourinho, hiding around corners as he stomped through the training ground and unsettled by his treatment of the club doctor Eva Carneiro, whose case now looks likely to end in legal action. It was starting to feel a lot like 2007, when a poor string of results also coincided with Mourinho making pointed comments about his board’s inability to sign the players he wanted and led ultimately to him leaving the club.
The suspicion with such stories is that they reflect grievances that are felt at most clubs most of the time and are intensified when results go awry. The most significant thing is less the content of the stories, but the fact they are leaking. In this case, the rumors seemed particularly telling given they echoed what had happened in Mourinho’s third season at Real Madrid when there were repeated suggestions that players had become embarrassed by Mourinho and his insistence that they perpetuate his strange conspiracy theories (such as claiming Madrid had been given a tougher fixture list than Barcelona).
Here, though, there was plenty of evidence that the core of Mourinho’s players are still playing for him, Diego Costa in particular. The Spanish international is still far form his best form and is still without a league goal this season, but there was no doubting his centrality in Saturday’s victory. It was his provocations that led to Gabriel flicking out a foot and being sent off, although Costa should himself have been dismissed before that. Costa grabbed at Laurent Koscielny’s face, gave him a backhanded slap with a flailing arm and then barged him to the ground with his chest. It was all deeply unpleasant, the sort of behavior that shames the game and the club, and yet Chelsea fans chanted Costa’s name and Mourinho shook his hand as he left the pitch.
Mourinho was utterly unrepentant afterwards. “If you want to speak about Diego Costa with me, I say he did what he had to do,” he said. “This is why you have full stadiums, you sell to televisions around the world for millions and millions. The game has to be played like that. Fantastic Diego. Man of the match.”
When a start has been as bad as Chelsea’s has, perhaps factors of decency are forgotten. Yet beyond Costa’s antics, there were many positives for Chelsea. Nemanja Matic, rested for Wednesday’s Champions League win over Maccabi Tel Aviv, looked refreshed. Alongside him, Cesc Fabregas confirmed the impression of Wednesday, that he is, slowly, beginning to rediscover his form. Eden Hazard was dangerous again and sealed the three points in stoppage time with his first goal of the English Premier League campaign. Branislav Ivanovic, surprisingly handed the captaincy as John Terry was left out, handled Alexis Sanchez far more efficiently than might have been expected given his form up until now this season.
It may be that, having had a lighter preseason than usual to try to avoid the sort of fatigue that so afflicted Chelsea toward the end of the last campaign, the side has finally begun to reach peak form.
“It was a very good performance,” said Mourinho, seeing a continuation of the encouraging signs of the Maccabi victory.
“We deserved the victory,” Mourinho continued. “We improved a lot with these two matches. We improved in many aspects. Defensively the team was much better. The attacking players defended much better than before. They created a compact zone and reacted very well to the moment they lost the ball and that gives great stability for the people that play behind. We were confident and comfortable with the ball.”
So for now, the crisis has past, but underlying questions remain: Costa still hasn’t recaptured his form in front of goal, Hazard isn’t as devastating as last season and one week of improvement isn’t enough to say Matic or Fabregas are definitively back. Then there is the issue of Terry, who seems to have accepted emotion for now, but may not do so in the long term.
And for all that two wins ease the pressure, there is a doubt about both of them: Maccabi was desperately limited both in ability and ambition, while Arsenal was holding Chelsea before Costa’s skulduggery. The signs are positive, but nobody can definitively say the crisis won’t return.