MICAH RICHARDS: Chelsea must prove they’re the real deal… the Blues have stepped off the gas but if Thomas Tuchel can get Romelu Lukaku firing again and tighten his defence, they can show why they are title favourites
- Chelsea have been conceding too many goals during a challenging few weeks
- Thomas Tuchel will be aware there has been a slight drop off in form of late
- The Blues will have a tough test ahead after competing in the Club World Cup
- But a fit and firing Romelu Lukaku can still secure them the Premier League title
There is always a point in a season when the teams who dream of being champions have to prove themselves to be the real deal.
In those moments when things are difficult you have to put your head down and fight. To show that you are the best around, you grind out wins with last-gasp goals and clean sheets to demonstrate that your hunger matches your ability.
This is where Chelsea now find themselves. They began the campaign like a runaway train, clearly thriving from the confidence that winning the Champions League gave them in May, but the last few weeks have been challenging. I’m not making things out to be worse than what they are but there has definitely been a drop-off.
Thomas Tuchel will be aware that his Chelsea side have dropped off a little in recent weeks
The Blues started the season like a runaway train but need to get back to being a defensive unit
What stands out more than anything is the fact they have conceded six goals in their last two matches, against West Ham and Zenit St Petersburg.
Clean sheets had become a currency for Thomas Tuchel, so the cheap way their defence has been breached will have hurt their manager.
He was furious in Russia after Zenit’s equaliser condemned Chelsea to the runners-up spot and the potential for a tricky last-16 Champions League tie. Tuchel questioned attitudes, saying: ‘Our behaviour changes when we have a lead and we get punished.’
It reminded me of an outburst from Roberto Mancini in Manchester City’s first title-winning season, 10 years ago. We had lost 1-0 at Everton at the end of January and he came into the dressing room and told us: ‘You are **** without Yaya Toure.’
Tuchel was furious after his players let in three against Zenit and criticised their lack of focus
It caused a commotion, people went mad but Mancini knew what he was doing. He wanted to spark a reaction from us and he got it — we won our next six games and got back to where we needed to be. Tuchel will be looking for something similar to happen, starting against Leeds on Saturday afternoon.
This really is the start of a decisive period for Chelsea. In the next six weeks, they face trips to Villa Park and the Etihad Stadium and welcome Liverpool and Tottenham to Stamford Bridge. All those fixtures are laced with difficulty.
What intrigues me about the way Chelsea’s season is panning out is the gap they will face after that clash with Tottenham on January 23. They won’t play in the Premier League again until February 19 at Crystal Palace due to their involvement in the Club World Cup.
They have had to postpone games against Brighton and Arsenal and, should they progress all the way to the Carabao Cup final, a match with Leicester would need rearranging, too.
It is an issue that neither City nor Liverpool will have to juggle and, perhaps, gives them an edge.
He will be wary that Chelsea head off to the Club World Cup, which could hurt their title hopes
It’s all very well having games in hand but seeing your rivals stretch away while you are not playing can have a psychological impact — ask any player what they want and the answer would be the same: to have the points on the board rather than the surplus of games.
If Chelsea return from the United Arab Emirates seven or eight points behind their rivals, they would be on the back foot — but these are the issues that champions must solve if they want to get their hands on the trophy. Plotting a way through those difficulties will really test Tuchel.
More immediately, he will be demanding a return to the defensive solidity and organisation that has been the hallmark of his reign so far.
Chelsea must find a way to keep more clean sheets – that has been a hallmark of Tuchel’s reign
Antonio Rudiger has been at the heart of it all and they have to get him tied down to a new contract with plenty of clubs around Europe waiting to offer him big wages.
I do not understand the sense in allowing a player of that quality to leave in his peak years when it will cost fortunes to replace him. Rudiger was out of the picture under Frank Lampard but has really stepped up since Tuchel took over.
I don’t doubt Chelsea will get back to keeping clean sheets but what will keep them in the title race is the form of Romelu Lukaku, who is finding his stride after fitness issues. When he is on the pitch, he carries a fear factor and can bully defenders.
Lukaku has made huge strides during his career and I would hate to play against him. I remember facing him for Aston Villa against Everton back in November 2015 and it was basically impossible to keep him quiet — he scored a brace and was unplayable that day. He was stronger and faster and you couldn’t get near him when he built up a head of steam.
If Chelsea can perfect their system and get Romelu Lukaku firing they can be title favourites
On his day, the big Belgian can bully players and cause defenders nightmares on the pitch
If Chelsea get their system right and Reece James and Marcos Alonso start firing balls in for Lukaku, they will quickly prove why plenty of people were tipping them to become champions back in August.
They are an outstanding side with outstanding players and it would be foolish to criticise them too much.
But, that said, they still have questions to answer, as Tuchel knows. Every team goes through a phase when things aren’t going right but, in this three-way fight, there is no room for hesitation.
Chelsea need to step on the gas again and remind everyone what they are all about.
HAMILTON’S A GENIUS… HE DESERVES MORE RESPECT
I’m counting my blessings this weekend as I will be trackside in Abu Dhabi for the conclusion to one of the all-time great Formula One tussles.
My respect and admiration for Lewis Hamilton is total. He is an inspiration to millions and I love how he speaks out on subjects that can be divisive but, apart from that, he is one of the most outstanding sportsmen we have produced.
Does he get the love and recognition that he deserves? Probably not, is the unfortunate answer. I don’t know why that is but he is a genius behind a wheel and I hope he is celebrating another World Championship on Sunday night.
If Max Verstappen crosses the line first, he will be a deserving winner — I just hope it is a fair fight.
I’ll be trackside for the F1 title decider in Abu Dhabi this weekend, let’s just hope it’s a fair fight
FORGET EUROPE, ANTONIO!
Tottenham are in the middle of a Covid-19 crisis and they have a problem over when their Europa Conference League game will be played against Rennes.
There is a fixture pile up coming before the end of the year and little room to squeeze in a re-arranged match.
Antonio Conte should not lose sleep about this game. Whenever it gets played, he should play his youth team. The Europa Conference League only threatens to be a nuisance in their campaign and there are far bigger assignments between now and the new year, not least the Carabao Cup quarter-final.
A game against West Ham with the potential of reaching Wembley and a trophy or a game that will leave you with more headaches for the rest of the campaign? It’s not even up for debate. On this rare occasion, Europe cannot be the priority.
Antonio Conte should sacrifice Tottenham’s rescheduled game vs Rennes and play the kids
MICAH’S MOMENT OF THE WEEK…
The easiest decision I will make all year.
What a set of circumstances enabled Robbie Savage to be commentating when his son, Charlie, came on to make his Manchester United debut against Young Boys on Wednesday. I bet Robbie is still smiling now — and with good reason.
I hear that Charlie is a tenacious, hard-working young lad who has done well to earn a contract at United.
Whatever happens in the rest of his life, he has played for Manchester United in Europe while his Dad was behind the microphone. What an amazing story.
What a magical moment for Charlie Savage to come off the bench for United while his dad Robbie was on commentary duty
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