Newcastle may be much improved after spending their winter window hitting “Buy It Now” on French soccer Ebay, but it’s difficult to look beyond Chelsea when trying to explain today’s result. The Blues allowed themselves to go behind on a Jonas Gutierrez header before taking a 2-1 lead through Frank Lampard and Juan Mata just past the hour mark. Yet thanks to two goals from new midfielder Moussa Sissoko, Chelsea leaves St. James Park 3-2 losers and destined to be pulled back into a race for third.
The Blues came into this weekend action with a four-point lead on Spurs for fourth, but returning to London without a point, they’re dangerously close to being pulled into a second successive fight for Champions League. With a draw from Everton (against Aston Villa) and a win by Arsenal (over Stoke City), Chelsea’s now only four-points away from sixth.
Rafa Benitez has been terrible — we know this — but Chelsea’s a team that has always had a strong player leadership culture, one that was able to carry the likes of Avram Grant to a Champions League final. Didier Drogba is gone, but Frank Lampard, John Terry, and Petr Cech are not only still there, they were on the field when Chelsea gave up today’s lead. No matter what you think of Benitez, it’s hard to see how he got in the way of this win, particularly when a bench thinned by injury, suspension, and Cup of Nations left him with no meaningful way to tinker.
Beyond Benítez or the wane of Chelsea leadership, today’s issue is one pundits and followers have been harping on all season. As Moussa Sissoko scored a late double in his second Premier League match, you saw the type of drive, strength, and resolve that would bolster an underperforming Chelsea midfield. How do Spurs end up with a player like Sissoko when taking a flyer on him (or any other player like him) would cost Chelsea a fraction of their transfer budget?
Late in this match, as he became the most important player on the field, you couldn’t help but ask how he was allowed to do that? How can this player that had struggled of late for Toulouse be dropped into the league and, a week later, win matches against the European champion?
Obviously there are a lot of problems at Chelsea right now, but if that question even needs to be asked, those problems might run deeper than we had previously thought. Through most of this season Chelsea’s been a troubled if stably third place side, but while giving up today’s lead they showed the type of perpetual vulnerability that defined last year’s slide. Now it’s worth asking whether the Blues are much better than the team that finished sixth last season.
Of course, there is a big difference. Last year’s slide was make possible but Roberto Di Matteo putting all of the team’s eggs into the Champions League basket. What’s this year’s excuse?
There’s also the possibility Newcastle’s come together. They have Sissoko, Yoann Gouffran and Mathieu Debuchy. Yoann Cabaye is healthy, as is Steven Taylor at the back. This team is better than a 15th place side, even if they’ve rarely looked it.
But Chelsea was up 2-1. They are the more talented side. They have the players to close out that game. Chelsea should have taken full points.
For the last two months we’ve likened Chelsea to Dr. Jeykll and Mr. Hyde, but with the team falling back into a race for their Champions League lives, the pressure mounts to find a cure to their constant bipolar transformations. Why is Mr. Hyde showing up more often than Dr. Jeykll?