Guest Post by Karl Matchett.
Quite as shocking as Leicester City sitting atop the Premier League in late November is the fall of the team who reigned in that position at the end of May: Chelsea’s abysmal season so far still sees them as close to the relegation zone (in points, even closer in places) than the top half of the table and with a difficult run of games coming up which will shape the remainder of their season.
With questions over whether Jose Mourinho had lost the dressing room and the support of the board still fresh in all onlookers’ minds, the recent run of three wins in four has at least gone some way to stilling the turbulent waters at Stamford Bridge—though the undercurrent of dissatisfaction is still very much present. It will be choppy and difficult to navigate once more this weekend, should Chelsea fail to take points off Tottenham Hotspur, a team who are suddenly being talked about in some quarters as potential title contenders after just one loss all season.
Not all campaign have they managed a run of four victories in five games, and that mini run of consistent positive results will begin to have a cumulative effect. Having narrowly beaten Dynamo Kyiv in the Champions League, Chelsea lost to Stoke, beat Norwich City by a slim margin despite an improved performance—and then swatted aside 10-man Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Tottenham will represent a stronger, more confident and more offensive threat than any of the previous quartet of opponents, and Mourinho’s claims that Chelsea can still make the top four this season will be severely put to the test at White Hart Lane. Defeat would leave Chelsea a full 10 points off Spurs—and they wouldn’t even be in the top four themselves.
Each game is a step and Chelsea can only take them one at a time right now, but those upcoming steps are treacherous, potentially lifting the blues much higher in confidence and in opportunity…but also coming with a warning sign about falling off the edge.
After Spurs comes Bournemouth at home—a must-surely-win fixture if ever there was one—and then back-to-back clashes against potential table-toppers.
A home match against Porto in the Champions League is essentially do-or-die for Mourinho, and in such a weak group, to not qualify is barely comprehensible. With Kyiv all but certain to beat pointless Tel Aviv at home, the Ukrainian side will finish on 11 points—one more than Chelsea and Porto both have right now. A defeat to Mourinho’s former side, who won the reverse fixture 2-1, and Chelsea are out.
A win, of course, takes them through, while a draw leaves a three-way head-to-head ruling in place—all three teams would have taken five points against each other, but Chelsea and Kyiv would go through on goal difference. They would only qualify in second, however, unless the Chelsea-Porto game finishes 3-3 or higher.
Following that, surprise leaders Leicester City will stand in Chelsea’s way back on the domestic scene. It’s impossible and pointless to predict how the Foxes will be faring three weeks down the line given nobody expected them to be where they are now, but there’s no huge reason to suspect their form will nose-dive.
Four huge matches, just over two weeks apart. It’s not too outlandish to suggest these matches could shape Chelsea’s remainder of the season entirely, potentially in the shape of Mourinho’s job—surely only at risk if he fails to qualify for the knockout stage of the Champions League—but also with regard to their ambition in the transfer market in January.
Their season is already far from the success they would have hoped it would be, but the west London side can still salvage enough momentum this side of the turn of the year to make the second half of the season a spirited one with plenty to play for. For that to happen, though, this upcoming fortnight has to show that Mourinho has won the belief and the attentions of the squad at his disposal, and that his own methods have enough adaptability in them to take victory at all costs when it matters most once again for Chelsea.