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Chelsea reaches critical juncture


This season has encouraged a deal more introspection at the top of the table than we're used to seeing; the points totals alone tell you that the Premier League's traditional top three have not had it all their own way. Manchester United stuttered through eight draws away from home before finally surrendering its unbeaten run (and "Crap Invincibles" tag) at Wolves this month -- its road form hasn't ranked lower for 20 years. Arsenal has suffered shocking home defeats to West Bromwich Albion, Newcastle United and Tottenham Hotspur. And then there's Chelsea.

Out of the League Cup at the first opportunity, fifth in the league (and 12 points behind United), and now deservedly out of the FA Cup to Everton. Chelsea's last remaining chance of silverware is the Champions League, and though the draw has helped by pitching Carlo Ancelotti's side against FC Copenhagen, which has never progressed so far in the competition before, it would take Reagan-esque optimism to argue that the campaign hasn't taken a radical detour.

Chelsea was five points clear at the top of the table at the end of October, with results home and away emphatic enough to suggest it could hold on to the title with its pinkie, no matter how hard United or Arsenal tugged. In the 16 league matches since, it's lost six and drawn five, dropping 28 points. December's 3-1 defeat to Arsenal felt portentous even then -- the Gunners all pace and precision while the Blues blundered in their wake -- and looks a mossy milestone now.

The margins, as we're always being reminded, are fine. Against Everton on Saturday, a moment's hesitation from Tim Howard around the hour mark might've changed things, or a decent penalty from Nicolas Anelka, maybe. If Aston Villa's Ciaran Clark hadn't got his head to a 92nd-minute equalizer last month, Chelsea might never have slipped out of the top four. Or what if just one of Chelsea's dozen decent chances had beaten Birmingham's Ben Foster in November, when it was still top?

Yet the trade in ifs, buts and maybes is as worthless as ever: even had it pinched better results here and there, that would only delay the inquest (in the same way that, say, the remarkable fitness of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes has seen United survive its failure to develop or procure convincing successors). By its own standards, Chelsea is flailing.

The apportionment of blame has tended toward the defense, which has shed its solid image during a season in which John Terry has struggled for fitness and his partners have seemed to struggle for form. Certainly we haven't seen Chelsea concede three in a game so often in the last decade, or make the kind of mistakes that let Sunderland's Danny Welbeck in at Stamford Bridge in November.

But its defense is still the meanest in the Premier League this season, having leaked 22 goals in 26 games and kept 12 clean sheets. Its goals conceded average is currently only 0.01 higher than last season. Asked this weekend which of his outfield players was performing well, Ancelotti named only defenders Terry and Branislav Ivanovic. A relative measure, but David Luiz's promising debut also augers well in that department.

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Immediately, then, the finger turns toward the front line -- and now, ironically, we're nearer the target. Though Salomon Kalou has improved on last season's five league goals, Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka are some way off matching 2009-10 levels (Drogba, who's only scored twice since the turn of the year, has half the league goals he had at this point a year ago). As a whole, Chelsea is averaging almost a goal less per league game.

It doesn't help that Fernando Torres is being asked to emerge from a fallow period under the weight of his price tag and while he is still adjusting to life in the capital. In addition, the wisdom of loaning out Daniel Sturridge looks shaky all the while he is scoring for Bolton. But it's impossible to watch Chelsea on days like Saturday, when Everton looked like the home side (not long after David Moyes' Ludus horribilis against Bolton), and avoid the conclusion that some of the problems start further back.

Chelsea's midfield has been its dynamo in recent seasons, but it's become slow and clunky at times in this. During the first half versus Everton, hopeful balls that were easily intercepted and backward passes accompanied by frustrated gestures too frequently signaled a lack of options between defense and the front. There was a noticeable improvement in the second half, but it wasn't the first time the midfield -- whether staffed by three or four players -- has looked a broken link.

What must concern Ancelotti, who was probably thinking of Frank Lampard when he mentioned players who "are not, at this moment, playing with 100% fitness," is that he has achieved such varied success with essentially the same midfield personnel in the last couple of months. Crucially, he appears to have lost confidence in the benefits of bringing Josh McEachran on to inject creativity and unpredictability, and has loaned out French youth international Gael Kakuta with a number of other youngsters.

That there is any frustration in reaction to decisions made about players of relatively limited experience, aged 17 and 20 respectively, highlights the transitional point Chelsea has reached, and how difficult that is to manage. The age of Chelsea's squad has been a subject of discussion for several seasons, but it is only now that the team's form and the emergence of fresh talent are truly combining to press the issue.

The Champions League may be all Chelsea has left to play for, but it is the trophy that Roman Abramovich covets most ardently. Ancelotti's conservative (pragmatic? depends on your mood, perhaps) management has served him pretty well so far, and he's unlikely to jeopardize the chase (or indeed Chelsea's participation next season) for the sake of blooding the club's next generation. He's not fighting off the stench of death with cans of Febreze just yet.

Yet at the same time, Chelsea hasn't had less to lose in years. Stood on the halfway line during Saturday's penalty shootout, several players in blue looked like men who know their party's over. There are fears that if opportunities remain in short supply even now, then 19-year-old reserve striker Fabio Borini -- reported this week to be considering a move to Parma after four years at Chelsea -- won't be the last to give up on his chance. The club is currently facing a crisis of confidence; that would be a catastrophe.

Georgina Turner has worked as a sports journalist since 2003. She covers the English Premier League, but also reports on tennis and women's sports for UK magazines.