West London Derby

Stabilized Chelsea cruise through another in West London Derby

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As much as I’ve hammered Rafa Benítez since his arrive at Stamford Bridge, it’s only fair to confess my opinions are under review. No doubt, Chelsea have struggled for much of the Spaniards tenure in West London, but since buckling at St. Marys on March 30, Chelsea’s performances have ranged from convincing to understandable – both drastic improvements on the manic form that characterized Benítez’s first months.

Today was both convincing and, considering the opponent, understandable, with Fulham offering almost no opposition to Chelsea’s 3-0 West London Derby win. Never in this match, Fulham were quickly pushed deep into their defensive third, with the Blues eventually going in front though David Luiz’s 30th minute laser. An all too easy header just before half allowed John Terry to double Chelsea’s lead, and in the 71st minute, the captain cleaned up Fernando Torres’s flick toward goal to complete a disappointingly easy day for the Blues.

The disappointment’s born from the buildup, this being an alleged derby, though it’s been some time since Fulham-Chelsea carried a rivalry’s intensity. The proximity of the two West London clubs makes derby talk obligatory, but when one side comes out as flat and listless as Martin Jol’s, it’s difficult to see  why we continue to consider this a rivalry. Just as passion can transcend geography to create compelling derbies like Liverpool-Manchester United, apathy can make proximity irrelevant. Particularly since Roman Abramovich made Chelsea one of the world’s strongest soccer brands, the Blues’ rivalry with Fulham’s become irrelevant.

So as Chelsea celebrated three goals from unexpected sources, they did so with the same intensity as they would against Reading, Wigan, or Norwich. And Fulham reacted like a struggling team on the wrong end of another bad result. There was no rivalry-driven pride at Craven Cottage.

But don’t let the lack of opposition detract from Chelsea’s performance. At various points this season (March 30, the most recent), the Blues have been unable to take advantage of opponents like this. Today, they asserted themselves early and, as a result, had one of their easiest matches of 2013. They played with the comfort and control fans imagined when their club added Eden Hazard and Oscar last summer.

It’s the kind of form that’s shone more often since Chelsea lost at Southampton, even if the bottom line results haven’t drastically improved. Over their last five games, the Blues have won three and lost two, though their losses are understandable. One was in Kazan, where Chelsea’s 3-2 defeat was all they needed to advance to Europa League’s semifinals. The other was this Sunday at Wembley, where Chelsea nearly came back to force extra time against a Manchester City team that’d played better than they had in months.

Against Fulham, Chelsea had no such obstacles, part of the reason they’ve vaulted back into third place. The Blues now sit on 61 points – one more than Arsenal and three better than Spurs, two clubs that play like London rivals.

Chelsea resurgence comes to screeching halt with loss to QPR

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Whoever said their eight-goal win over Aston Villa could turn Chelsea’s season around got way too far ahead of himself. While subsequent wins at Norwich City and Everton reinforced that view, today’s 1-0 loss to last place Queens Park Rangers throws all that out the window.

Consider the depths to which this QPR team had fallen. They were three points back of Reading for 19th in the Premier League. A three-game losing streak left them with only 10 points in 21 games. Their league-worst attack had only scored once during their losing three, with two consecutive losses at home giving them little reason to think a West London Derby at Stamford Bridge would turn out well.

And in truth, QPR wan’t that impressive. Defensively, they did well to hold out, but the performance wasn’t so much better than one we would have seen under Mark Hughes. Though 11 of Chelsea’s 26 shots were blocked, there was still enough room for the Blues to break through, particularly given  14 corner kicks and the 36 crosses a compact Rangers’ defense allowed them to pump into the box.

Only able to convert two of their 26 shots into tests for Julio César, it was a pure lack of execution that cost Chelsea. Perhaps the team didn’t take QPR seriously enough (who can blame them), with Juan Mata and Eden Hazard starting on the bench for what should have been an easy match.

And maybe there was some back luck, a Branislav Ivanovic header scraping off the cross bar at one point. Regardless, there can be few excuses for a team with this talent to show so poorly at home to the league’s worst team.

It’s a question that will come up every time Chelsea has a setback, but until they can transcend their issues, it still bears asking: Are the Blues any better off after firing Roberto Di Matteo? At times, they have been, like at Sunderland and during their trouncing of Villa. But losing a trophy in Japan was telling, while today’s loss to a lightly regarded rival was embarrassing.

Living with Rafa, it’s going to be all about the results. There’s no emotional attachment to him like there was with Di Matteo. He doesn’t have the loyalty that Carlo Ancelotti’s affability engendered. He’ll never be as respected as José Mourinho. So if Chelsea’s not winning, supporters have little else to hold onto.

The loss keeps Chelsea fourth in England. They still have a match in hand, but now seven points back of second place City, the urge to look up is gone. After you lose to a team like QPR, it’s better to focus on where you are rather than where you want to be.