Questions still remain over Jose Mourinho’s impact in his second spell in charge of Stamford Bridge as well as Chelsea’s Champions League progress as they prepare to host Schalke on Wednesday.
An opening home loss to Basel has given Chelsea little margin for error in a group that many expected them to breeze through with little concern. The Blues had been on a roll since that shock defeat to the Swiss champions, with the familiar intensity of Mourinho’s teams becoming increasingly evident. But on Saturday there was a performance that harked backed to the Basel loss as Chelsea slumped to a 2-0 defeat to Newcastle to snap a run of six-straight wins.
Mourinho spared no punches in the aftermath, claiming that he made “11 mistakes,” referring to the poor displays of those he selected. While in terms of the run of results, the defeat was a surprise, it remained clear that everything was not yet fully firing under Mourinho.
For all the praise for the Portuguese’s handling of Juan Mata, the Spaniard has not had anywhere near the same impact as he did last season. That decline in contribution from someone who has been voted the club’s Player of the Year for the past two seasons is an undoubted problem. Against Newcastle, Mata was often drifting into the same area as Oscar, which, combined with Eden Hazard cutting in from the left, made Chelsea extremely narrow in advanced areas.
That is a problem that can be overcome if a team has full-backs who excel getting forward, but that is not the case with either Ashley Cole or Branislav Ivanovic. One of Mourinho’s first declarations upon returning to the club this summer was that he saw Ivanovic as a right-back, rather than a center back, as he had been largely used under Rafael Benitez. One can debate about the Serbian’s best position, but what is clear is that Cesar Azpilicueta offers more with the ball.
A further problem is a lack of defined core to the side. For most top teams, while rotation is necessary, there is for the most part a clear first-choice lineup. An undisputed and powerful spine was also a big feature of Mourinho’s first spell in charge. This time around, however, he still appears unsure about the best partner for John Terry, while, although Frank Lampard and Ramires appears his first-choice midfield two, they do not match up well against Europe’s best. Further forward, other than Oscar, the attacking midfield three is in a constant state of flux. Meanwhile, the failure to spend big on one of the world-class forwards that were available this summer could yet come back to haunt them.
Still, for all those critiques, Chelsea have a squad that, while somewhat unbalanced, is packed with enough quality to cast aside the majority of the opposition they will come up against. Especially given their still long injury list, that list includes Schalke.
As in Germany two weeks ago, Jens Keller will be unable to call upon star striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and dangerous winger Jefferson Farfan. Although Kyriakos Papadopoulos has traveled with the squad to London after a long layoff, the influential center-back is unlikely to feature.
Without that trio, Schalke responded from a disappointing home loss to bitter rivals Borussia Dortmund with a 2-0 victory at Hertha Berlin at the weekend. But the side who currently lie sixth in the Bundesliga lack quality in both penalty areas. That proved costly in the first meeting with Chelsea and will likely do so again at Stamford Bridge.
Prediction: Chelsea 2-0 Schalke