LONDON: Chelsea have not enjoyed the best of weeks: they dropped a two-goal lead at home to struggling Southampton and saw managerial target Pep Guardiola lured off to Bayern Munich, all in the shadow of today’s testing Premier League derby with Arsenal and difficult midweek League Cup return against Swansea writes KEIR RADNEDGE.
Chelsea won 2-1 with a counter-attacking goal from Juan Mata and a Frank Lampard penalty prompting a response ‘only’ from Theo Walcott after Arsenal upped their game in the second half.
But interim manager Rafa Benitez remains deeply unpopular with the fans.
His old Liverpool captain, Steven Gerrard, said : “It’s difficult when you have 95pc of the fans against you. Matches become a a lot easier away from home. Rafa has had difficult times before and he’s thick skinned [but] this is a massive week for Chelsea.”
Indeed it was a sharp comment on perceptions of Chelsea’s fragility that Southampton, having recovered from 2:0 down to draw 2:2 at Stamford Bridge, sacked their own manager Nigel Adkins the next day.
Guardiola’s decision was a “surprise” for Manchester United’s Sir Alex Ferguson and “always a possibility” for Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger. The Catalan had talked over the options for his next move with both managers – among others – along the way.
The ex-Barcelona boss had also been linked with Manchester City but the champions’ manager, Roberto Mancini, said he never felt under any threat despite the presence ‘above him’ of former Barcelona executives Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain.
Where Chelsea go now is open to question. Owner Roman Abramovich has become his own worst enemy in his pursuit of success with a strategy of semi-permanent revolution. Chelsea fans would never dare jeer the man who has brought them 10 major trophies in the past decade but they certainly question his impatience-driven judgment.
Fans who always opposed the appointment of Benitez saw the prospect of Guardiola’s arrival as light at the end of a dark tunnel. Abramovich had even bought delicate ball-players such as Oscar and Eden Hazard to suit Guardiola’s football philosophy. Now the options are limited for a club still struggling to refresh the squad.
England leftback Ashley Cole has agreed to extend his expiring contract for one more year but uncertainty remains over midfield favourite Frank Lampard who contract also runs out at the season’s end. He might go to Italy or even, more likely, to Major League Soccer.
As for a new manager Jurgen Klopp and Joachim Low are among names linked with Chelsea. Others include Atletico de Madrid’s Diego Simeone, Swansea’s Michael Laudrup, Everton’s David Moyes and Jose Mourinho, a fans’ favourite between 2004 and 2007 and now under pressure at Real Madrid.
Benitez took over from Roberto Di Matteo with the Blues still in the Champions League, albeit on the brink of elimination, and only four points off top spot in the Premier League.
Now he had had to admit that the league title is beyond their reach. As he prepared for Arsenal’s visit Benitez said: “I don’t think we can do it but the League Cup is there, the FA Cup is still open and the Europa League is still open. I just have to give the team the confidence that we can win against anyone. If you have that belief it becomes easier.”
Olivier Giroud, with Lukas Podolski absent through illness, should have opened the scoring in the fifth minute but pulled his shot wide. Chelsea celebrated the let-off by bisecting Per Mertacker and Bacary Sagna for Juan Mata to shoot them ahead. Quarter of an hour later it was 2:0. Keeper Wojciech Szczesny tripped man-of-the-match Ramires and Frank Lampard clipped home the penalty.
Theo Walcott celebrated agreement of a three-year contract extension by pulling a goal back – his 15th of the season – in the 58th minute. But, for all Arsenal’s second-half improvement, it was to prove only a consolation.
Chelsea could have eased their last-minute jitters. Demba Ba, who replaced luckless Torres in the closing stages, ran around Szczesny, but saw his shot cleared off the goal-line by Thomas Vermaelen.
Victory, for Chelsea, was a welcome end to a difficult week. But it was still ‘only’ their second Premier League win at Stamford Bridge under Benitez.
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