Archive for the ‘Chelsea’ Category

Chelsea v Paris Saint-Germain - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final Second Leg

Ever since Chelsea were pitted against Atlético Madrid in the Champions League semi-final draw, coverage of both clubs has tended to focus on one man. Little wonder. The story of Thibaut Courtois, owned by Chelsea but enjoying a phenomenal season on loan at Atlético, would have been compelling enough even without the contractual clause which threatened to stop him from taking part.

The terms of the player’s loan agreement state that his parent club must be financially compensated – reportedly to the tune of £2.5m – every time that he appears against them in a competitive match. Atlético’s president, Enrique Cerezo, initially suggested that Courtois simply would not be able to play, saying: “it’s a number we cannot afford”.

But then Uefa intervened, ruling that the clause was unenforceable. The governing body “strictly forbids any club to exert, or attempt to exert, any influence whatsoever over the players that another club may (or may not) field in a match”.

Either way, it is telling that Chelsea would place such a high value on Courtois’s presence in the first place. They rate the 21-year-old very highly indeed. Increasingly, so does the rest of the world.

Courtois has been with Atlético now for three seasons, and his performances only continue to improve. He has kept 19 clean sheets in 32 La Liga games this season, plus a further four in the Champions League. His efforts in the latter competition have often been eye-catching, from the stunning reflex stop he made to deny Milan’s Andrea Poli in the last-16 to his second-leg shut-out of Lionel Messi et al during Atlético’s quarter-final win over Barcelona.

There are those who would already name Courtois as the best goalkeeper in the world. The former Atlético striker Radamel Falcao did so last November, while Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink – who played for both the Spanish club and Chelsea during his career – recently claimed that only Bayern Munich’s Manuel Neuer could compare.

The Dutchman was prepared to rank Courtois above the man who will start in goal for Chelsea on Tuesday night. Petr Cech was once considered to be the best in the world himself, but lately seems to have slipped out of the conversation. He knows very well that he is likely to face a battle to keep his job when Courtois’s loan deal expires in the summer.

Impatience for change is building, as it tends to do where young talent is involved. Cech’s qualities were called into question after he made costly mistakes on two of Paris Saint-Germain’s three goals during the first-leg of Chelsea’s own Champions League quarter-final last month. The next day’s edition of the Daily Star newspaper carried the unequivocal headline: “TIME FOR KEEPER TO CECH OUT!”

It was a preposterous demand – and one that came to look even more so after Cech’s clean sheet had helped Chelsea to overturn the result in the second leg. The goalkeeper has made mistakes this season, not least those in Paris, but for the most part he has enjoyed a very solid campaign. In fact, from a statistical standpoint, he’s been outstanding.

Cech has kept 16 clean Premier League sheets so far in 2013-14, three more than any goalkeeper in the division, and is conceding at a rate of just 0.71 goals per game. Nor is this simply a case of him benefitting from the quality of Chelsea’s defence. According to NBC’s stats, Cech’s save percentage for the season stands at 76.7%. Only Vito Mannone, on 77.9%, has done better.

Such achievements are hardly a flash in the pan. Cech had the Premier League’s best save percentage last season, too, when he also made more stops than any other goalkeeper among England’s top four teams. He has kept a club record 219 clean sheets so far in his 10 years at Chelsea, and has shown little sign of slowing down.

But Cech knows better than most that he cannot afford to rest on his laurels. After all, he was a young upstart himself once, arriving at Chelsea as a fresh-faced 22-year-old in the summer of 2004 – after a short loan spell at Rennes – and immediately snatching the starting goalkeeper’s job away from Carlo Cudicini.

During an interview with Sport magazine last summer, Cech recalled the mood of supporters at his Premier League debut – a home game against Manchester United. “I remember coming out for the warm-up, and you see there is a huge reception for Carlo,” said Cech. “Everyone is singing his name, and then the line-ups come out and I think the supporters were like: ‘Who is that guy?’ I knew I had to really deliver if I really wanted to keep my place.”

That he did, playing his part in a 1-0 victory over United and never relinquishing his spot thereafter. Cudicini, previously considered to be one of the better goalkeepers in the Premier League, would not be a full-time starter again until he joined LA Galaxy in Major League Soccer almost a decade later.

Cech has no intention of imitating the Italian’s career path. At 31 years old, he knows that he still has plenty of good years left in him, and does not want to waste them sitting on a bench. Indeed, one of players he looked up to most of all during those early years in English football was Nigel Martyn, a man that Cech admired precisely because of the way he kept performing to a high level even as he closed in on his 40th birthday.

Long before Martyn, though, Cech’s first true goalkeeping idol was Edwin van der Sar. “I remember when Ajax started playing with [him] basically as a libero,” said Cech during his interview with Sport. “Everyone was like: ‘Wow, they are playing like this with their goalkeeper!’

“But then you realise that this was the way forward – a goalkeeper shouldn’t just be in the goal to catch the ball when it comes to him. He is an extra player, he can see things from the back, he can pass the ball. Players don’t just kick the ball for the sake of it, so why should a goalkeeper? You always want to find the solution that enables you to retain the ball, and you always need to know how to control the space behind the defenders.”

It is a style that Cech has sought to emulate in his career, advancing high up the pitch when his teams are in possession. It is also one area in which he might claim an edge over Courtois. In a piece for the Guardian earlier this month, Sid Lowe noted that Barcelona, linked with a bid for the Belgian, had distanced themselves from such a move by raising concerns about his ability to distribute the ball with his feet.

Then again, there is always a fair bit of gamesmanship where potential transfers are concerned. And a Barcelona approach for Courtois would surely be rejected in any case. If Chelsea were to even consider allowing the player to leave, it would likely only be in a deal with Atlético, and presumably one that saw Diego Costa move in the opposite direction. Even that might not be sufficient.

Chelsea, though, are going to have to face up to some difficult decisions this summer. Courtois has already expressed impatience at his situation, suggesting that he would like to know where his long-term future lies. With just two years left on his contract at Chelsea, he might soon be in a position to start making ultimatums.

But Cech has an opportunity over the next fortnight to prove just how much he has left to offer. A clear-eyed look at his performances this season suggests that it might be more than he often gets credit for.

Chelsea v Paris Saint-Germain - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final Second Leg

First, a reminder that football can be fun, as if last night’s fixtures weren’t enough to convince you. But here in the face of our own understanding of the game in which players and managers are in perpetual show down over rivalries, playing opportunities, perceived snubs and all the rest of it, a pleasant moment between two monsters of the game:

Second, do we need to haul out the small sample size song again?

Demba Ba likely felt this was his moment after he had secured Chelsea’s future in the Champions League by scoring Chelsea’s second, knocking out PSG last night. In response to Mourinho’s remarks after the 3-1 result in the first leg, in which the Chelsea manager claimed his side don’t currently have any “real” strikers, Ba said:

“I wasn’t out for revenge. Maybe he [Mourinho] doesn’t have the strikers to his liking, but I know that we have three great strikers and I think that a lot of clubs would like to have them. I’m happy to have liberated us. I haven’t been given my chance much this season, but I’ve taken this one.

And yet this year’s tallies remain on the books, and it shows a club in which Eden Hazard is the top scorer and the only Chelsea player on double digits. Samuel Eto’o, brought in as a stop gap, is second on 8, tied with Oscar. Compare to City with Aguero and Dzeko on 15 and 11 goals respectively, both trailing Yaya Toure’s 18.

So good on the night, but it would seem that Mourinho may be onto something. Quite whether Diego Costa is the solution is a topic for another post…

Paris St Germain's Patore celebrates with team mates after scoring the third goal for the team during their Champions League quarter-final first leg soccer match against Chelsea at the Parc des Princes Stadium in Paris

Devang Desai and Richard Whittall sit down to discuss the U.S – Mexico friendly, this week’s Champions League action and Jose Mourinho’s striker problem.

You can download the podcast here and subscribe on iTunes here. You can also find the RSS Feed here.

Liverpool's Sturridge celebrates with teammates Gerrard and Henderson after scoring a goal during their English Premier League soccer match against Sunderland at Anfield in Liverpool


Devang Desai, Richard Whittall and James Bigg sit down to talk about another Manchester Derby dominated by City, the future of Arsene Wenger at Arsenal and Bayern Munich’s latest triumph.

You can download the podcast here and subscribe on iTunes here. You can also find the RSS Feed here.

Paris St Germain's Zlatan Ibrahimovic celebrates after scoring against St Etienne during their French Ligue 1 soccer match at the Parc des Princes Stadium in Paris

Devang Desai, Richard Whittall, James Bigg and Gianluca Nesci sit down to talk about the Champions League quarterfinal draw. Can Manchester United channel the magic of 1999, Borussia Dortmund look to do the impossible and who is the favorite to win it all — all this and more in the latest edition of the Counter Attack Podcast!

You can download the podcast here and subscribe on iTunes here. You can also find the RSS Feed here.

Chelsea's Terry applauds after their Champions League soccer match against Galatasaray at Turk Telekom Arena in Istanbul

Last night Chelsea travelled to the Türk Telekom Arena to face Galatasaray in the first leg of their round of their 16 Champions League tie. The result was a 1-1 draw, with goals from Fernando Torres and central defender Aurélien Chedjou.

Here, again drawn at random, is a ‘match report’ assessment of Galatasaray’s goal:

Chelsea should really have built on Fernando Torres’s early goal but they suffered a lapse in concentration, a rare mistake by John Terry, and yielded to pressure from a Galatasaray side who responded well to Roberto Mancini’s tactical tweaks.

Here is the danger of match reports. Because they stand in for the actual game, the writer, under the veneer of informed expertise, gets to write history. But despite the insatiable need for some writers to affix blame for every single conceded goal on the field, the fact is Chedjou’s set piece goal was not a Terry ‘mistake.’

Here for reference is the goal in real time:

Now in the silly world of football punditry, Terry should have some how either got his head to the ball before it landed at the foot of Chedjou, or at the very least Petr Cech should have stayed on the goal-line to make what would have been an insane save. Neither scenario takes into account how good a delivery Wesley Sneijder made on the corner kick itself.

So let’s break it down a little further.

Chelsea Screen Shot 1

In this first image above, Sneijder has just taken his kick. Though you can’t see it here, a second before Chedjou pulled at Terry as if to get in front of the Chelsea defender, but then feinted to instead go behind him. Terry doesn’t mind losing his mark because he has his sights on getting his head to the ball first. If Terry can simply get his head to the ball first, he’s done his job. Cech is also coming out to see if the ball will dip toward him for him to grab it.

Chelsea Screen Shot 2

In this next shot you can see Terry leaping thinking the ball will drop closer to him, but is in fact beautifully hangs, curls AND drifts, leading to confusion between Cech and the backline over where exactly the ball will drop. Cech meanwhile sees Terry coming and hesitates, but both Cech and Terry judged the ball would drop in different ways—Terry thought it wouldn’t inswing as much, and Cech thought it would be two feet closer to the near post. It’s worth mentioning that Cesar Azpilicueta also mis-timed his clearing header.

After the goal, Gary Neville immediately points out it was Terry’s job to cover Chedjou. But he also concedes “That’s Petr Cech’s ball, even though John Terry’s got to stay with his man (Chedjou).”

No. Terry’s job is in fact to defend the corner. He believed the ball would drop two feet further out than it did which, if it had, he could have headed it away. Cech also misjudged the ball. So did Azpilicueta. Wesley Sneijder, who received almost no credit from any source I’ve read today, delivered one hell of a good kick, and Chedjou, who also took a gamble in feinting Terry to run behind him, won out.

So was this a mistake, or a misjudgment of a very good free kick? Where does Sneijder’s brilliant delivery end and the Chelsea back-line’s culpability begin? If Terry’s job was simply to cover Chedjou, which presumably means “getting in front of him,” wouldn’t he be equally at risk of scoring an own goal?

Football is a game, of course. But it’s also a method. You prepare your teams, you put out the best players, you practice set-piece defending, you ensure your side creates as many chances as possible in the opposition third. These are all ways to help stack the odds in your favour, but you cannot eliminate the odds. Stuff will always happen, split second judgments will be defied by a ball that drops two feet away from where you want it to.

Thankfully, Chelsea’s manager seems more in tune with this, focusing instead on his side’s inability to put the score out of reach:

“We are not a team who kill opponents. We are paying for that in the Premier League, losing points, and now in the Champions League we might have got a different result. But they all give everything. They fight for each other, work for each other, have tactical discipline. So I cannot be critical. They got a very acceptable result in a stadium where it’s difficult to play and difficult to win. I think they did a good job.”

FC Basel's Mohamed Salah celebrates scoring against Chelsea's during their Champions League Group E soccer match at St. Jakob-Park in Basel

With Chelsea set to add another player (and Liverpool transfer target) in Basel’s Egyptian winger Mohamed Salah, the Ajax and Dutch football dude Mohamed Moallim Tweeted this helpful Wiki screen shot (ht to our very own Gianluca Nesci):

And then it was followed up by this helpful update:

So what’s the deal here?

I already hinted at it this morning, but someone summed it up well in an email exchange with me yesterday. Chelsea is essentially collecting a not inconsiderable group players, many of whom are ending up out on loan, in some cases to particular clubs like Vitesse and Middlesbrough.

Why? While it’s not immediately obvious, the most plausible explanation involves Chelsea acting as a kind of economic third party, letting various prospects increase values with teams not integral for the club’s ambitions and then reaping the potential rewards in order to help meet Financial Fair Play provisions, which require the club to break even (not spend more than they earn, with some important caveats which you can read about elsewhere).

Chelsea in fact have been up front about it. A week ago, Goal! writer Liam Twomey made his own case for the strategy, quoting Chelsea’s technical director Michael Emenalo:

“We are trying to find a way because, given Financial Fair Play stipulations, we need to recruit young and we also need to have a reservoir of talent that we develop,” Emenalo admitted to the club’s official website in a rare interview last September. “This season is a good test for what we’ve implemented with young players given the stipulations of Financial Fair Play, but even regardless of the Financial Fair Play regulations, we think this is the best way to go.”

FFP or no FFP, it is a business model which makes sense. If just one of their 26 loanees reaches a world-class standard – and of the current crop Chelsea arguably boast two such prospects in Lukaku and Courtois – the club will save millions in transfer outlay. If the rest, having rarely burdened their parent club with training or wage costs, can then be sold for significantly more than their purchase price, the Blues can realistically hope to avoid ever replicating the £49.4m annual loss they posted last month.

Twomey goes on to describe the murky personal relationship between Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich and Vitesse owner Alexander Chigirinsky, and other signs of collusion between the two teams which takes away any incentive for player development from the Dutch side whilst giving them a cheap advantage in the league. Similar questions have been raised over Chelsea’s relationship with Middlesbrough.

The ability of Chelsea to essentially speculate on players is both a sign of the problem super wealthy teams can pose to European football as a whole, and a reminder that clubs can and will do anything to skirt break-even provisions if it threatens their dominance. It seems to me there are any number of ways it might be addressed, perhaps by capping the number of players a team can loan (though Italy would be borked). As ever, collusion may not always have the future of some of the world’s most promising talent at heart. But you knew that already…