Earlier this week, as Chelsea closed out their Champions League play for 2012 / 2013 under new manager Rafa Benitez it became increasingly clear exactly what kind of roller coaster the team is taking its fans on: a twisty, unending, gut clenching ride.
Fans have had to contend with a team desperately searching for its identity from the top down. At one point, early in the Premier League season, Chelsea was having their best start in years, were playing ridiculously well and had apparently seamlessly integrated their wealth of new players such as Eden Hazard and Oscar. The team was riding high at the top of the table and seemed virtually unstoppable. It was not to last.
As hot as the Blues started, they cooled frighteningly fast – and rather dramatically. Within six or seven games the team was staring down their worst opening to the season in the last ten years. Suddenly the passing stopped, the team could not score and the players who had started strongly (Mata, Torres, Hazard) were suddenly non factors. Within a couple of weeks they were dropping like a stone down the table, fired previous manager Roberto Di Matteo and hired Benitez.
Under Benitez it has been much of the same – the team struggling to get wins. Until this week they had not gotten a win under their new manager. Now they have two: the first came during a disappointing finish to their Champs League season. The team needed to win and they needed Juventus to lose in order to sneak through to the round of 16 and defend their title. For the first time in a month, they played incredibly well (albeit against subpar competition) and were able to pull out a huge victory. Without most of their vets (Lampard, Terry) the team fired on all cylinders and netted six goals. Moreover, their sullen striker Fernando Torres got a huge boost by scoring two strong goals and generally playing hard all game. One player got them over the hump: after a pair of missed penalties, David Luiz ran up and smashed his penalty into the net to give Chelsea the lead. There was absolutely no way this was not going in, even if the keeper had managed to get in front of it, the ball would have powered him into the net alongside the ball. Luiz hammered that ball, and it was a statement shot, along the lines of Wake the F UP! We need this!
Ironically enough, Luiz may have accomplished his intended wake up call.
The team was out of the Champions League but they showed exactly what they could do with a little motivation (thanks David!) and a few breaks. This is a team that has been in transition for a few seasons – a huge core of aging vets are slowly beginning to make way for young, hot talent like Hazard, (the somehow great mid-season pickup) Gary Cahill and Oscar. Like any evolution it has not always gone smoothly but desperately needs to happen for the team to continue to be successful.
On Saturday, the team played away at Sunderland and managed to snag a huge win thanks to two goals from Torres and another from his running mate Juan Mata. The most important players for Chelsea are a confident Torres and a strong Mata. Torres has to keep himself up and has to score as much as he can. He should be among the most feared strikers in the league and in the past week he has certainly looked (and played) the part. As for Mata, everything runs through him when Chelsea is successful and they absolutely need to keep him in top form if they are going to regain the top spot in the table.
Currently the roller coaster season continues – and the team sits (rather amazingly) third in the table – but questions remain, among them: just when in the hell will this squad figure out who they are? Is this a team that should be contending for the top spot in the league, or are they are team that should be battling for relegation?
Then of course, there is the inevitable return of some of the injured vets such as the aforementioned Lampard and of course Captain, leader, legend…odd man out?… John Terry.