Chelsea's championship hopes may bite the dust before January as an injury crisis thrusts Avram Grant's management finesse and tactical astuteness into the spotlight.
The Blues progress to a League Cup semi-final meeting with Everton after beating Liverpool 2-0 at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday. It was a flattering score in an intense and spiteful match. Crouch was handed a red-card for a reckless tackle on John Obi Mikel and little separated the two sides until Lampard broke the deadlock. Against a 10-man Liverpool reserve team, Chelsea gained a phyrric victory.
Andriy Shevchenko suffered an ankle injury that could rule him out for Sunday's trip to Blackburn. To add to the strikers malaise, Claudio Pizarro missed the match with a fever and Florent Malouda wasn't unable to make his expected return from a knee injury.
With Didier Drogba and John Terry already sidelined, Grant cannot afford to lose any more of his first team players as he tries to close the six-point gap with leaders Arsenal. He must be relieved that Obi remained on the pitch after an ugly two-footed lunge by Peter Crouch.
Things are looking bleak at the moment. On the back of a 16-match unbeaten run and a new 4-year contract, Avram Grant sat for his first major test against Arsenal last week which will allow him to cross the chasm into a world-class manager. Nobody expected him to slaughter the Gunners and get a distinction, but to match them stride for stride was not beyond this team which he has carried thus far. Unfortunately, he ended a few points short of flunking the test.
To be fair, it was only a 1-0 defeat which came from an uncharacteristic mistake by Petr Cech, but when Grant is benchmarked against Jose Mourinho, his inadequacies were magnified. In the space of three months, Grant lost to the top two teams (away from Stamford Bridge, if that is any consolation).
If Mourinho was in charge of this match, Chelsea will make light of the absence of Didier Drogba, Michael Essien and Ricardo Carvalho. Last season, Arsenal took the lead in all three fixtures yet Chelsea managed two draws and one victory. The Blues did not lose to Arsenal during Mourinho's three years reign, and only lost to Manchester United once.
Avram Grant lost the proud record but more importantly, the characteristics which made Chelsea so hard to beat. Fielding the same players, Chelsea preserved the form but they were void of the key substances - steel and discipline - prevalent in every team Mourinho has managed and achieved honors with.
There is a palpable sense of crisis at Stamford Bridge as Grant grapples with the lack of firepower and a second-rate defense over the Christmas period. He will have to bear the consequences of fueling Chelsea's title hopes earlier on. Definitely, Grant will strengthen the team in the January transfer window but opening the purse-strings is no guarantee of success right now.
There are few strikers who are not cup-tied for the Champions League, thus it will still be the same old faces (or lack of) which Grant has to contend with in Europe. Moreover, attracting big names to Chelsea is a challenge as many players do not foresee a glittering career under Grant. Chelsea is also over-dependent on senior players with few upstarts breaking through the ranks, unlike Arsenal.
However, the biggest problem plaguing Chelsea stems from their skipper John Terry. Before Mourinho's departure, he had fiery arguments with Terry for deteriorating performances but Mourinho was packed off before he instituted any changes to the captain's armband.
Just a year ago, Terry enjoyed a father-son relationship with Mourinho. He gave a new definition to Captain Marvel. Almost a perfect leader, with excellent qualities - reliability, fortitude, positioning, distribution, commanding air presence, and a knack of scoring crucial goals. Praised as the best crunch tackler in modern football, he was the backbone of Chelsea's first title-winning side in 50 years.
This season, his ego has been inflated to the point of unpopularity. Snarling and arguing with referees at close quarters has become part of his game. His role in Liam Miller's sending-off at Stamford Bridge was disgraceful. Miller had caught him in a clumsy tackle and both two players became entangled, when Terry got up, he was indignant and leaned into the face of Miller, hurling abuses.
His temper also got the better of him when facing off with Derby County last month. He led a posse of Chelsea players to Andre Marriner at Derby after the referee had sent off Michael Essien. In September, during another mass confrontation while playing against Manchester United, Terry snatched at the red card Mike Dean showed to Obi. It is clear the entire team was egged on by someone who is not setting the right example.
And we don't need any reminder of Terry's off-pitch misdemeanors. In 2002, he was charged in court for affray in a West End watering hole. A tabloid caused substantial damage to his image when it accused him of being "sick as a parrot" after a carpark encounter with an underage blonde ended in ****. He is also said to have a weakness for gambling and drinking.
Terry clearly believes his own hype after being repeatedly told what a tough and fearless hero he is. Strutting with his chest puffed out like a pompous bighead he has become, the impact of his actions on the team and fans no longer interest him. He clamored for action against Valencia, just four days after suffering a depressed fracture of the cheekbone – an injury which could sideline him for up to six weeks.
That is not all. In a separate incident - Carling Cup final last year, Terry suffered a life-threatening kick on his head and he swallowed his tongue, was unconscious and immediately rushed off to hospital. Once he regained consciousness, he did not rest but instead joined his mates in the pub, despite admitting he has no memories of the second half of the match.
Chelsea cannot have a player dictating when he wants to play, that is the sole discretion of the manager. Terry needs a long lay off to sort his head and body out. Maybe the injuries and the recent outcry over his massive wages have taken their toll; and he is comforting himself that his halo will be restored by acting like an overbearing ****. He was actually a very disciplined player until a year ago.
Will the John Terry of old step up? I am half hoping that Capello strips him of the captain's armband and put him in his place. Grant has no guts to do that but sometimes, taking drastic measure is needed. A wake-up call may bring home the point that nobody is bigger than the team, especially when it involves your influential captain.