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Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Essien Absence Exposes Chelsea

For the majority of the 2010-11 season, Chelsea have resembled a well-oiled machine – a well-oiled steamroller, to be precise. Opening with six straight league wins and 21 goals led most to predict that the title was already over and that we might as well go back to patronising Blackpool, slagging off the Premier League for being processional rather than professional, and not knowing quite what to make of the fact that Andy Carroll lives with Kevin Nolan.

If we were surprised that Liverpool then beat the Blues at Anfield, we were pretty shocked to see Sunderland, widely considered to be the worst travellers since I woke up at 4am on a night bus in Morden covered in lettuce from a Subway sandwich – which had been NICKED from my hands – score three times without reply on Sunday and generally terrorise Chelsea’s defence all afternoon.

Mysteriously, talk on Chelsea’s on-field slump has centred around the absence of John Terry, when the real reason for their recent dip in form has been the absence of Michael Essien from their midfield. They have now lost two in three in the league, which is pretty rare. They have lost at home, which almost never happens. The common denominator was not the absence of their captain; Essien was the one who missed both games.

Carlo Ancelotti’s side might have been complacent in allowing their intensity levels to drop for Sunderland’s visit, but the real moment of carelessness had come four days earlier with Essien’s idiotic two-footed lunge on Clint Dempsey. The Ghanaian had already missed the defeat at Anfield with a toe injury and by ruling himself out of the next two matches (away at Birmingham and Newcastle), as well as the defeat to Sunderland, he has provided Chelsea with a real problem.

Though Chelsea won a league and cup double largely without Essien last season, his importance to them remained undimmed. Competition in the league last year wasn’t exactly fierce, as Arsenal’s players were all busy getting injured, Liverpool were busy self-destructing and United were busy making new scarves. Arsenal seem more robust this year. United have overachieved so far and await the return of Rooney. City have already beaten the Champions. The title race doesn’t look so straightforward this time round.

Without Essien, Chelsea’s underbelly is soft. Ramires, brought in to do a similar job, has been largely inconspicuous. Mikel still fails to impress. Neither could handle the hounding and forward running of Jordan Henderson and Lee Cattermole, at any rate. Nor could the same combination handle Liverpool’s first 45 minutes at Anfield a week earlier, with Dirk Kuyt deployed to link with Torres, drag Ramires or Mikel wide and generally free up space for Maxi and Gerrard to run into. When Chelsea fail to perform, it’s not because their inspirational leader is missing, or that Frank Lampard continues to struggle. Essien is the team’s driving force. He is to Chelsea what Makelele used to be.

Crucially, they are also missing a key centre back, but his name isn’t England’s Brave John Terry. Ricardo Carvalho has been in great form for Real Madrid and while he is protected every week by Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira, he continues to be a far more accomplished defender than Terry – even if he is 32 and considered “ageing” by his former employers. Technically more adept, Carvalho was an assured presence in Chelsea’s defence in their double-winning season last year. In fact, he was superb from day one.

I don’t buy the fact that letting high-earners leave Stamford Bridge has weakened Chelsea. Deco drifted in and out of games (mainly out), Joe Cole was never fit and Michael Ballack seemed to enjoy appealing for decisions more than he did making any on the pitch. But Carvalho’s departure has taken on even more significance with news that Alex is also injured, leaving Chelsea with no cover at centre-back. Ivanovic is neither a full-back or centre-back – he’s more just a ‘defender’, Ancelotti is unwilling to throw in Jeffrey Bruma and Paolo Ferreira is a) 31 and b) definitely a full-back.

That’s not to say they are about to collapse under Carvalho’s shadow, Essien’s suspension and Brave John Terry’s bravery/sciatic nerve problems, but all this is strangely reminiscent of United's wobble last season when Micheal Carrick and Darren Fletcher were forced to play centre back together. Essien’s return this year might have been like a new signing, but if he is missing Chelsea have a problem - and it is even bigger now he may be deployed at centre-back himself. Suspension, injuries and a bit of bad luck - not what you need when your season consists of three games a week.

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