Such is the nature of football’s ephemeral fortunes, that joy can often be merely a fleeting experience, while fans can often be confident that there’s light at the end of the tunnel when success is hard to come by.
At times over the last few weeks, even the most ardent Chelsea fans must have questioned when the nightmare would end, following a truly dismal start to the campaign.
A combination of poor results, dire defending, underperforming superstars and internal controversy had ensured that the Pensioners’ chances of retaining their Premier League title appeared slim.
Mourinho was struggling to keep a handle on the unquestioned authority he once enjoyed, while back-to-back defeats to Everton and Crystal Palace (coupled with the loss to Manchester City) had clearly raised questions in the coach’s mind about some of his key performers.
This increasing doubt was made manifest ahead of the Champions League bout with Maccabi Tel-Aviv, when the Portuguese manager axed a handful of his key men. The Blues started that match without the likes of Nemanja Matic, Branislav Ivanovic, Thibaut Courtois, John Terry, John Obi Mikel, Diego Costa and Pedro for various reasons, while Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Loic Remy, Kurt Zouma and Abdul Rahman Baba were given the chance to impress.
They did, eventually, as Chelsea put the Israeli champions to the sword in a 4-0 victory.
Chelsea’s fortunes have improved markedly over the last seven days
The Pensioners’ improvement continued on Saturday when they saw off London rivals Arsenal 2-0 in a tempestuous encounter.
The scoreline doesn’t truly tell the story of a match in which Arsenal were reduced to nine men following the dismissals of Gabriel Paulista and Santi Cazorla, while Diego Costa’s despicable antics ensured almost that the outcome of the match was almost lost in the pre-game furore.
Mourinho, who also saw title rivals Manchester City drop points in a 2-1 home defeat to West Ham United, will care little about the controversy, and will simply be delighted to see his side move up to seven points.
For the match against Arsenal, Chelsea started with a back five of Asmir Begovic, Branislav Ivanovic, Kurt Zouma, Gary Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta. While Mourinho did demonstrate a desire to move away from his title-winning defence of last season—naming Frenchman Zouma ahead of Terry—he kept faith in Ivanovic, one of the team’s poorest performers during the early portion of the season.
Thus, from the victory over Maccabi, Ivanovic returned at right-back, Azpilicueta moved back across to the left, and Baba was dropped.
Ghana fans can hope that Mourinho’s decision to start Zouma has given him a taste for new faces. Indeed, the youngster was one of the Pensioners’ key performers on the day. His speed allowed him to keep pace with Theo Walcott, his power helped him silence Olivier Giroud, while his anticipation and aerial menace helped him ensure the Blues took the lead on 53 minutes.
Could Zouma’s showing convince Mourinho to further reshuffle his backline?
With Zouma in and Terry toppled, will Mourinho be tempted to install Baba as a permanent fixture at the expense of Ivanovic?
In fairness to the Serb, despite one poor touch, he was largely back to his best against the Gunners, making three interceptions, three clearances and two tackles.
However, neither he nor Azpilicueta can match Baba’s attacking impulse from the full-back position, demonstrated against (admittedly inferior opponents) Maccabi.
Against the Israeli side, the Ghanaian was one of Chelsea’s key offensive threats. He contributed two crosses (compared to Azpilicueta’s one) and also completed three successful dribbles (the Spaniard didn’t manage any). Against nine-man Arsenal, Azpilicueta completed only one successful cross, managed no dribbles and contributed only one key pass.
Ivanovic has averaged 0.3 successful crosses per match in the league so far this season, and it remains to be seen whether he can still match Baba’s drive from deep starting positions.
Chelsea’s upcoming fixtures list show a series of encouraging meetings and a handful of opportunities for them to re-establish themselves as title contenders.
They travel to Walsall in the league cup, before visiting strugglers Newcastle, then welcoming both Southampton and Aston Villa to Stamford Bridge.
For these matches, it is imperative that Mourinho’s side assert themselves, take the game to their opponents, and use all of the weapons in their arsenal to pick up maximum points.
Baba | The upcoming fixtures present an ideal opportunity for the Black Stars full-back
In this context, Baba surely demonstrated enough against Maccabi to show that he may well be the ideal man to give Chelsea the sharpest-possible attacking threat in their upcoming fixtures.
Against Arsenal, Chelsea certainly showed that they are improving, but they could be better still with Baba introduced to the backline.
With revolution in the air at Stamford Bridge, and with accommodating fixtures to come, the time is right for Mourinho to pull the trigger on his big-money summer addition. Ivanovic may soon be taking his place alongside Terry in the Chelsea dugout.