Chelsea struggle to balance form with change

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As he sparked into life, emerging from the substitutes bench on his way back from a lengthy injury, Michael Essien represented something of a blast from the past as he entered the fray in place of Oriol Romeu, a man still in the infancy of his Chelsea career.


The Ghanaian, who before his four substitute appearances hadn’t played a game this season must have glanced around him to see a side playing in Blue unrecognisable from the one that he featured so heavily in during the club’s halcyon days of the mid-2000’s, or even last season.


Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole, Dider Drogba, John Terry and Salomon Kalou were all absent thanks to a mixture of injury, international duty and in Cole’s case, being sent off for two bookable offences.


When Jose Bosingwa swung a hopeful shot across Michel Vorm’s goal in the dying embers of Chelsea’s game against Swansea to claim a fortuitous equaliser it wasn’t the old faces that greeted the full-back in celebration, but men new to the job.


Romelu Lukaku, Raul Meireles, Ramires, Juan Mata, Fernando Torres all enjoyed the moment. Even the man who grabbed the goal arrived after the party was starting to wane, when the trophies where becoming less frequent.


Of course it is Andre Villas-Boas caught in the crossfire. The Portuguese coach landed the plum job with the minor caveat of overhauling a fading giant over the summer.


Charged with the tough task of delivering sweeping changes at the same time as juggling the expectations of an owner desperate for Champions League success, Villas-Boas always faced an uphill battle - and perhaps it is only now that the sobering reality of his current task has become apparent.


The form guide speaks for itself. Back to back draws against sides promoted to the Premier League season mean Chelsea have won just two of their last eight games in the league.


While they battle for the fourth and final Champions League spot with Arsenal and Liverpool they occupy ninth in the form guide, and remain in the driving seat if only thanks to the indifferent run their rivals (occupying 17th and 11th in the form guide) have embarked upon of late.


Although there is little suggestion he could go the same way of so many of his predecessors he is certainly the victim of circumstance as he wrestles with the conundrum that no Chelsea boss in the club’s recent history has had to contend with; if it’s easy to build a title winning side with Roman’s millions, how do you rebuild one, harmoniously combining elements of old and new?


So far Villas-Boas has acquitted himself well even if results haven’t gone his way.


If he hasn’t earned the admiration of the Stamford Bridge crowd then he certainly has their appreciation over the task he faces.


His handling of Lampard’s dalliance with the substitutes bench helped him stamp his authority on the club while his persistence over maintaining an attractive footballing philosophy demonstrates his vision for the future.


There will likely be no immediate consequences if Chelsea were to miss out on the Champions League places this season.


Disastrous as missing out on Europe would be, the appointment of Villas-Boas was a departure from Chelsea’s usual recruitment process of going after the biggest and the best, meaning he has that rare commodity previous Chelsea manager’s could only dream of; time.


There is little pressure to land silverware this season, but there is pressure to demonstrate the green shoots of something special to come in the future. He has the talent at the club and the likes of Mata, Meireles, Sturridge and Romeu have demonstrated the future in west London could be bright. No Champions League would ensure the pressure is well and truly on in his second season, something not particularly conducive to helping rebuild fallen champions.

Both Roberto Mancini and Sir Alex Ferguson have pointed to the importance of the upcoming period for their title challenging sides - how the best sides set themselves up for glory in May with points over the bitter winter period.


Chelsea face a similar trial by fire, not for the title – the 12 point gap between them and Manchester City that has remained fairly consistently for much of the season is unlikely to be breached – but as a mark that they are growing into a side that can once more challenge at the top. For Chelsea, next season begins in the coming weeks.

Premier League

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