Much has changed in the last two weeks for Chelsea. After a goalless draw at home to West Ham, there was much inquest into the decision to sell Spanish creator Juan Mata when the squad that was left lacked the ingenuity to break down a side scrapping to avoid the drop. On the same day, Manchester City had pummeled Champions League challengers Tottenham 5-1 away from home. Chelsea may have improved, but the ammunition of City would surely fire them to the title.
Now, as they head into Tuesday’s trip to West Brom, Chelsea sit top of the Premier League and with their two leading rivals for the title having suffered significant stumbles. Jose Mourinho can continue to spin his yarn about little horses all he wants, but his side are now favorites for the championship and looking good value for that tag.
Mourinho’s persona has been stamped on every team he has managed and for better and for worse that has very much been the case since his return to Stamford Bridge. Despite his claiming to be “the happy one,” a sense of malaise hung over the Portuguese at the start of the campaign. The reasons for his blues are, of course, a matter of conjecture, although his failure at the world’s most elite club would seem a likely cause, as does his been overlooked for a Manchester United job for which he seemed to have positioned himself so deliberately.
Perhaps unsurprisingly Mourinho’s team mirrored his disconsolate body language. Utterly inspiring going forward, what was more alarming was their inability to adhere to even the most basic tenants of Mourinho’s philosophy and keep things tight at the back. Then came a change. He dispensed with the pretense that he was going to supply an open, attacking style of play and went back to basics. The results improved and in the midst of the revival Mourinho seemingly rediscovered his mojo. He now looks every bit the mischievous, belligerent manager that his club’s fans and the quote-craving media love and much of the rest of the soccer-watching public loves to hate.
It all came together in a 1-0 victory over previous title favorites Manchester City last Monday. There was a steely defensive performance, combined with a ferocious intensity to counter attack that has so far been lacking in this second incarnation of Mourinho’s Chelsea.
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As much as Mourinho alone deserves credit, new signing Nemanja Matic has also been pivotal. The Serbian, who was dispensed by Chelsea three years ago, has seamlessly settled to become the key cog in both protecting the back four and effortlessly setting attacks in motion. Matic was excellent again against Newcastle United at the weekend in a performance that was arguably equally as encouraging, in a very different way, to the one against City. It is fine and good being able to use their pace to counter against a side as open as Manuel Pellegrini’s men, but the fact is that most of their opponents between now and the end of the season will be far more interested in preventing Chelsea from having that kind of space to exploit.
Enter Eden Hazard. There were few observers across Europe that did not believe the Belgian was destined to be something special when he was at Lille. He had a good first season, too, after Chelsea beat off competition to secure his signature. But in recent weeks, he has become a match-winner. If Hazard had not been in the team then what was a comfortable 3-0 win against Newcastle would have been far more arduous and may not have come at all. It appears that Mourinho is working to mold Hazard into a Cristiano Ronaldo type -- a player who can do all the flicks and tricks, but who is ruthlessly focused on getting the ball into the net every time he receives the ball. Consistency is key, but he is well on his way.
Hazard’s brilliance may be needed once more on Tuesday to get through a West Brom side that badly need all the points they can get. It seems a long time ago that, under Steve Clarke, they recorded a famous win at Old Trafford, held Arsenal to a draw and were a highly dubious injury-time penalty away from inflicting a first ever defeat for Mourinho at Stamford Bridge. Worryingly, the decision to change managers and bring in Pepe Mel has not even provided the traditional immediate boost in results. Just two points have been recorded so far, at home to Everton and Liverpool, which owed more to their opponents’ failings to put the game to bed than any great signs of promise from West Brom. It is hard to imagine Chelsea in their current form being so charitable.
Chelsea: Fernando Torres will come back into the Chelsea squad after a knee injury, but John Terry will have to wait until the weekend to return.
West Brom: Mel will be unable to call upon Nicolas Anelka, Stephane Sessegnon and Jonas Olsson. Defender Billy Jones is also an injury doubt.
Where to watch: The Barclays Premier League match will kick off at 3 p.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by NBCSN, with a live stream available on NBC Sports Live Extra.