Why Shaun Wright-Phillips or two centre forwards could have saved Chelsea from elimination in the Champions League
Jose Mourinho has been much lauded for his ability to administer tactical switches to ensure his Chelsea side prevail at all costs. But on Tuesday night ‘The Special One’ got it horribly wrong as Chelsea crashed out of the Champions League in the Nou Camp, without so much as an attacking whimper.
It was in this competition two years ago that Claudio Ranieri’s tinkering was brought to the fore and with it departed Chelsea’s Champions League campaign, in a tie against Monaco, which they were widely expected to reign victorious.
This time, the context of the clash may have been different, with Chelsea very much the underdog, but the consequences remained alarmingly similar. Tactical frailties have cost Mourinho another foray towards the Champions League title, a quest that looks to be beyond the current crop of players at Stamford Bridge.
From the outset, it was clear that Chelsea would have to arrive at Camp Nou in attacking mood. In search of a two goal winning margin to progress to the last eight, it might not have been a surprise for Mourinho to abandon his one up-front philosophy and find a space for both Drogba and Crespo in his first eleven. Whatever the Portuguese manager plumped for, it was clear that the attacking threat from his side would have to be of far greater substance than was apparent in the first leg.
Two weeks ago Mourinho’s game plan was undoubtedly altered by the premature departure of Asier Del Horno, for his reckless challenge on the superb Lionel Messi, but Barca’s impressive style of pressing should have been resonant in Chelsea minds right up until kick-off on Tuesday.
At Stamford Bridge, Barca were predictably fluent on the ball, but it was without it that they proved most intelligent. The Catalans applied unremitting pressure on Chelsea players with the ball, squeezing The Blues deep into their own half and suffocating the midfield of Lampard, Makelele and Gudjohnsen. The midfield trio who have offered so much in the Premiership this season, performed creditably, but without the dynamism with which we have come to expect. In attacking Chelsea even without possession of the ball, Barcelona enjoyed a high line of defence with plenty of room in behind. Last season in the second leg of this tie, Chelsea exploited that high line explosively with three goals in 20 minutes at The Bridge. Perhaps Mourinho should have paid more attention to the events of that game in preparation for Tueday night.
With goals needed and a high line to attack against Chelsea had the perfect opportunity to introduce a relative outcast of their season. Rarely could the attributes of Shaun Wright-Phillips have been so suited to European football than against the Spanish champions, but Mourinho spurned the opportunity. It’s true that SWP has appeared less coherent with his current teammates as was the case at Manchester City last season and, his inclusion in the starting eleven would have been an unquestionable gamble. But the diminutive winger has shown sparkles of his precocious talent lately and if heading to Camp Nou 2-1 down is not time to have a speculative flutter then Chelsea fans must be wondering when would be more appropriate.
Instead Mourinho opted for the consistent blandness of another £20m plus signing, Didier Drogba. This plan had worked well against Bayern Munich last year but with none of the three supporting members of Mourinho’s attacking cast getting close enough to the Ivorian centre forward, the ploy was doomed from kick off. Cole and Robben offered diligent touches and flashes of potential cutting edge but neither possess the raw pace that might catch out such a defence. Damien Duff on the other hand has seemed out of sorts for some time and his contribution was so peripheral, he might well be the first of the new Chelsea era to be ushered out stage left come the end of the season.
Unfortunately for Chelsea, Mourinho still had more tactical aberrations up his well-tailored sleeve. When the time came to make his trademark double substitution, Mourinho once again refused to inject some pace to the proceedings, preferring Eidur Gudjohnsen to SWP in replacement for Duff, but also relinquished the physical strength of Drogba with which he has put his trust in so regularly.
At such a delicate stage of the evening, one striker for another was perhaps acceptable, however what followed next was ludicrous. As he has done before in similar circumstances, Mourinho hoisted the German defender Robert Huth up the pitch, as a makeshift centre forward. Perhaps Huth is a regular victor in ‘Wembley Doubles’ in training, for one can find no other reason for the Chelsea staff’s continued belief that he will one day score the goal that rescues a game for Chelsea.
Entering the final minutes of a game Chelsea could still have won, Huth partnered Crespo up-front. No room for Shaun Wright-Phillips and no room for Gudjohnsen as a striker. And, if Mourinho does insist on plugging the gap in his front line with a centre-half, surely there is another, more suitable candidate for the role. John Terry is a constant menace in the opposition penalty area, with the ability to score or create. It was he who fashioned Chelsea’s undeserved equaliser last night, with typical stoicism that Huth would do well to emulate.
Of course, even if Chelsea had used SWP, opted for two strikers or sent their most attack-minded centre back forward, they might still have been thwarted by the best Barcelona side to turn out for over a decade. But maybe Roman Abramovich will study the patchwork forward line with which Chelsea ended the game and come to the same conclusion as many others – Jose Mourinho is no longer ‘The Special One’.