Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Chelsea 0-1 Inter: Premiership Primacy has been Exaggerated

The rampant smugness of English football took a hit lastnight, with Chelsea comprehensively outplayed, and beaten 1-0, by Inter. But in a way this is how the hacks would have wanted it, a defeat engineered by the Prodigal One, who they can now shower in adulation.

English pundits, on the whole, want it to be about Mourinho. More so than, say, Wesley Sneijder, best player on the park, a player who left Madrid on the relative cheap in August and would have made a great signing for Chelsea, Manchester United or Liverpool.

Chelsea appointed Ancelotti to bring entertaining football to the Bridge. But like Scolari before him, he's struggled because it is still, essentially, Mourinho's team. A team of attritional warriors. They will bludgeon their way past most of the Premiership also-rans without fuss, but their reliance on Drogba has reached new levels this season. Over two legs, Lucio and Walter Samuel tamed the Ivorian beast in much the same way Nemanja Vidic has done for United on numerous occasions. Seeing how toothless Chelsea looked with their talisman marginalised, it is disappointing that Arsenal have so miserably failed to come to terms with the threat he poses. But that particular threat is one we will not face again this season.

Overall, Chelsea are an aging side, who were missing dynamic figures in Essien and Ashley Cole, and those absences proved too much for them to compensate for. Mourinho's gameplan worked to a tee, but his deployment of three frontmen was not as daring or as surprising as some made out. It is oft-remarked how Chelsea are blunted when their full-backs are pinned back. After that, the difference was in the midfield battle.

Chelsea's midfield is really quite overrated. Mikel looks a nothing player. Lampard is past his prime and always lacked the guile to function as an effective playmaker. Ballack? A plodding parody of a long-forgotten good player. For all the talk of Ancelotti's bringing aesthetic pleasure to their football, it is telling that the big loss was Essien, a snarling beast of a footballer, who would add power and drive to their midfield but bring little by way of guile.

Inter look like potential winners in what has become a weakened looking last eight- and that is assuming that Barca and Bordeaux prevail tonight. CSKA Moscow provided the other shock lastnight, subverting the stereotype about Russian teams on their travels by winning 2-1 in Seville, and 3-2 overall. With the identities of the last eight to be completed tonight, I'll take a renewed look at Arsenal's chances in what is proving an unpredictable year in the Champions League.

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