Wilson: Chelsea continuing to defy logic

FOX Sports columnist Jonathan Wilson points out that for all the negative headlines garnered by Chelsea, the Blues could actually end the season in sterling fashion.

Chelsea against Rubin Kazan

By Jonathan Wilson

Chelsea have won just two of their last nine away matches. Chelsea's fans and their manager, Rafa Benitez, have reached an uneasy détente after Benitez confirmed he would leave the club at the end of the season. Chelsea are a club with no clear sense of direction; although there have been strong suggestions Jose Mourinho will return in the summer, nothing is certain. Chelsea, realistically, ought to be in crisis. 

Yet Chelsea are third in the league, reached the semi-final of the Europa League on Thursday and on Sunday will play in the semi-final of the FA Cup. When Benitez noted last week that this could be "a great season", there was a widespread raising of eyebrows - and yet he is right. Chelsea are a club who defy all logic (and for all the turmoil they are, as their fans keep reminding us, European champions for another six weeks).

What Chelsea have - and it is a virtue underrated for being so nebulous - is an ability to win the games that matter. They showed it last year in the Champions League when clinging on in impossible situations and scoring goals just when they needed them became their hallmark, and they have shown it again this season. Their progress in the Europa League has been neither smooth nor impressive and yet they are still there, for the second season running the last English side left in European competition. Even in the FA Cup, they have gone through the traumas of almost losing at Brentford and going two goals down away to Manchester United.

Amid all the chaos, Benitez remains as much his own man as ever. Almost whatever has happened in the game, he comes into post-match press-conferences, smiles wearily, fends off questions about the crowd with a shrugging passive-aggression and questions about Fernando Torres by pointing out how good he's been in training, and then gets down to the business that clearly most interests him: Tactical analysis.

It was the same after Thursday's game against Rubin Kazan, a 3-2 defeat in Moscow that meant a 5-4 aggregate victory. There was little glee at reaching another semi-final, at coming a stage closer to matching Udo Lattek's record of winning European trophies with three different sides, just a grumbling about defensive laxity and the need to put it right before Sunday's semi-final against Manchester City. 

"I was happy with the first half, but we have to improve on our second-half performance," added Benitez. "I'm disappointed because we didn't defend well in the second half. It is not just the defenders who have to improve, because it is the whole team who defends. We have to carefully analyse our defending by watching the match video."

Torres represents another enigma. His goal against Rubin was superbly taken and took him to 20 goals for the season in all competitions - a record that seems wholly at odds with the general mockery of his form. In the last three games he has looked sharp - it was his introduction from the bench that turned the game against Sunderland - and yet there have been so many false dawns before that it's difficult to say with any certainty that the old Torres has at last returned or is even close to returning.

Still, his first touch is a decent barometer of his confidence, and that seems to be back, at least for now. The paradoxical thing is that, for a player so widely regarded as mentally weak, his self-belief seemingly knocked fatally as he recovered from a knee operation in 2010, Torres has shown remarkable resilience to keep battling. Poorly as he has played at times over the past couple of seasons, he has never disappeared. 

"I believe he is the most criticised player in the world," the winger Hazard told L'Equipe. "As soon as there is a bad match, it is his fault. He has missed opportunities, just like everyone else. He is always here trying. He has always got over blips and scored goals. That is really impressive. He is quite a reserved guy. He is in his own bubble."

With Demba Ba cup-tied for the Europa League, Torres's form is essential to Chelsea's chances - while the fact they essentially have only two forwards to choose from speaks of another paradox: which is that, for all the money they've spent, Chelsea have a remarkably slender squad. 

It's not just at centre-forward - where the situation has not been helped by the sale of Daniel Sturridge and Salomon Kalou and the release of Didier Drogba - but also at left-back. With Ashley Cole suffered a hamstring strain and Ryan Bertrand going down with a virus, Chelsea were forced in Moscow to turn to Paulo Ferreira, who has played just one Premier League game this season. The other option, the Dutch 18-year-old Nathan Ake, who has played only a minute of Premier League football this season, ended up being used at the back of midfield.

Potentially Chelsea could still have twelve games to play this season, which will stretch even Benitez's rotation to the maximum. And perhaps the biggest paradox is that, even if he achieves that, even if he somehow coaxes his side to third and two trophies, there will still be a sense of dissatisfaction at Chelsea. 

It's a club that has simply stopped making sense.



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