I think the past two weeks could probably be classified as disappointing for Chelsea. Zero strong performances, four points out of six in the league (and by the skin of our teeth to boot), and knocked out of the Champions League by Manchester United. If we're having to endure a wave of discussions about the future of the club, well, it's hard to say that the Blues haven't earned any criticism.
When we last faced West Bromwich Albion, things were very different. Chelsea were defending champions of the Premier League, having won the double in Carlo Ancelotti's first season in charge. They had scored a league-record 103 goals in 38 games in the 2009/10 season, and the only blemish on their record was a second-round loss in the Champions League to eventual winners Inter Milan. It was, all in all, a good season. And then we went ahead and beat the Baggies 6-0 in the opener of the 2010/11 campaign. Back then, the situation was rosy. That's no longer the case.
For West Brom too things have changed. Despite a string of good results in the early going, they suffered a slump towards the end of autumn that ultimately resulted in the dismissal of manager (and Chelsea hero) Roberto di Matteo. Roy Hodgson has taken over and been the author of a rather unexpected revival, leading his side up to 10th in the table and almost certainly out of danger of relegation this year.
The style has changed as well - Hodgson has always been a two banks of four, defend with your lives style English manager, and while that doesn't particularly suit teams that are actually good, it works wonders on teams that need defensive help. The fluid football of a 4-5-1 has been dampened in exchange for an organised 4-4-2 system that Chelsea will find difficult to break down at the Hawthorns.
It's tempting to say that with the Blues out of Europe and about as likely to win the Premier League as I am to find out that I am in fact secretly a wizard that there's nothing left to play for. This, I think, seriously underestimates our ability to collapse at any moment. Fourth place isn't yet secure, so we're going to have to work immenselyt hard over the next few weeks to make sure we're playing Champions League football next season before we do anything particularly experimental.
Speaking of experimental, while I enjoy the concept of a 4-3-2-1 Christmas tree, Chelsea don't have the players to pull it off, so I'm hoping that Carlo Ancelotti abandons that shape to move back to the 4-3-3. There should only be one real choice for a centre forward right now - after his mid-week cameo, Didier Drogba must be started and must play until the match is secure. Although we haven't seen what Fernando Torres can do in a 4-3-3 yet, we have seen what Drogba can do and that's maul teams. It's probably also time to give Salomon Kalou another start, since Nicolas Anelka appears to be off again.
There are a few players who probably deserve some rest, however. Frank Lampard's been playing too much lately, and it's showing. Branislav Ivanovic is in desperate need of a break
, and Alex's return will allow him to go into the right-back rotation rather than also being the team's spare centre half. There's no real reason not to play John Obi Mikel here either. Things start coming together after that.
Benayoun may not be available for a full game, in which case I'd happily trot Lampard out for the first half, but I'd like to see the Israeli getting as much playing time as possible to see whether this Torres supply plan could ever work. Also, Carlo should probably start including Josh McEachran in his match-day squad. He shouldn't be starting, but we should definitely be looking for ways to insert him into the game when a result is already in the bag - he's certainly more interesting to have as a substitute than Paulo Ferreira.
Despite West Brom's good run, I'm fairly confident that they can be beaten, even at the Hawthornes. Chelsea will ahve to play fluid, intelligent football on the flanks and then batter them in the centre, but I don't see any major problems there - we should be able to do just that. Pick: Chelsea 2-1 West Bromwich Albion.