Outside noise distracting Chelsea ahead of pivotal stretch

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LONDON — Chelsea have slipped to fifth place in the Premier League ahead of their clash with West Bromwich Albion on Monday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) as the Blues aim to not lose a second-straight home league game for the first time since 2011.

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The reigning champs are not in a good place with injuries to key players ravaging their squad and manager Antonio Conte under pressure amid scrutiny over new signings, his future beyond this season and his demeanor in press conferences and on the sidelines.

With Chelsea facing Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League last 16 next week, plus having games against top four rival Manchester United and runaway league leaders Manchester City coming up, it is a pivotal stretch of games as they aim to stay in the top four race and in the discussion for silverware this season.

Speaking exclusively to Pro Soccer Talk fresh from organizing a Chelsea legends match against Inter Milan this May, NBC Sports analyst and former Chelsea star Graeme Le Saux believes that the outside noise concerning Conte’s future at the club beyond this season, plus speculation regarding players leaving and arriving at Stamford Bridge is having an impact.

“Anything from outside is a distraction, as much as you try to block it out. Whether it is players coming, players going, whether there is talk about the manager, all of those things, they can have an impact,” Le Saux said. “But ultimately the way to answer that is showing the unity and the level of the performance you would expect from the talent that a team like Chelsea has. It’s going to be a fantastic month for them, Barcelona in the Champions League, big games against United and City. Those are the sorts of games that quality players say, ‘you know what, this is why I’m at a club like Chelsea.'”

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But what has been the main problem for the current Chelsea squad this season?

The shocking defeats to Bournemouth and Watford in their past two Premier League games (both by three-goal margins) certainly haven’t helped as Conte’s side have looked a shadow of the title-winning team from last season.

After a sloppy start to the season they recovered well and looked nailed on to challenge Man United for second place in the PL table. But right now you sense that it’s a case of one step forward and two steps back for the Blues.

“There’s some inconsistency this season and some disappointment in a few the performances which have been uncharacteristic,” Le Saux said. “Any team, you take comfort from your worst performances if they’re not too bad, if that makes sense? If you lose a game and you lose it 1-0 or a late goal or something, you’re not happy but at least you can say ‘look, we did everything right, but we were unlucky at the end of the game.’ But there have been a couple of performances more recently that are uncharacteristic of the team. The energy was down a bit, not quite firing on all cylinders. Between now and the end of the season, the club have to find that level again and finish strongly. FA Cup, they are going well in that. In the league, they are still in a strong position.”

Tore Andre Flo, another Chelsea legend who will play his part against Inter Forever in May, urged the current players to get their act together fast with huge games coming up in February and March in Europe and in the Premier League.

“It is a very big couple of months coming up now. Obviously the results haven’t been quite as good as last season. Last season was an amazing season but they are still showing they can do it and hopefully they can find the form altogether and over a period of time they can create some good results. If they can find good form now it would be super, because these big games are coming up.”

Le Saux added that the main problem for Chelsea, like the rest of the Premier League, is simply one thing: Manchester City.

“Part of the problem is that everyone is being compared to Manchester City. You can see that they are just exceptional. They are exceptional by any standard anywhere in world football this year,” Le Saux said. “When you look back in all of the seasons of the Premier League, you think, ‘has there been a team which has played with such a different identity to everyone else, in such a way which stands out?’ Looking at everybody else, they’ve all suffered losses which you can’t quite believe. The top six are judged by that standard Man City have set. It is always going to be a challenge, clearly for Antonio it is a period of time where all that noise from outside has got to be filtered and the team have to go out and show character and performance, you sort of think ‘actually, that’s the Chelsea we saw last year and were so successful.'”