Fragile Chelsea underline value of Terry amid Champions League horror show

Originally published for Goal UK on 21st November 2012

What has happened to the house that Jose built? The modern Chelsea, the multiple Premier League winners, the FA Cup plunderers, the European champions, were all built on a dauntless backline capable of repelling even the most incisive attacks. But as the full-time whistle blew in the Stadio Juventus, a shell of the blue curtain so indomitable against Barcelona and Bayern Munich in 2011-12 was presented to the millions watching the Old Lady triumph 3-0.

In days gone by Petr Cech could go an entire match barely being noticed ā€“ remember the 2004-05 season and the preposterously minute 15 goals they conceded in 38 Premier League games? His reputation may be ascending once more, but this is down to his prominent role in any Chelsea matchday narrative.

There is only so much the six-foot five-inch Czech shot-stopper can do and it became brutally clear that those operating in front of him were conceding far too much space in and around the penalty box to keep Cech out of the firing line. Inevitably the bundle of chances that came Juve’s way would yield at least a couple of goals.

Though Roberto Di Matteo – whose role in the defeat eventually cost him his job – chose to play three centre-backs with Ashley Cole and Cesar Azpilicueta as wing-backs, the performance had echoes of the 3-1 defeat to Napoli in last season’s edition of the Champions League. That night, also minus John Terry, the Blues looked panicked against an Italian side vibrant in their movement and direct in their probes.

On Tuesday night, it was a repeat as Gary Cahill and David Luiz were shackled together once more. They may have had the additional assistance of Branislav Ivanovic, but the outcome was similar. Sebastian Giovinco’s 91st-minute strike was the 20th goal Chelsea had conceded in the last 10 games the pair had started together ā€“ a world away from the bolted iron door the Blues defence was a mere six months ago.

And against Juventus, hardly a side blessed with world-class strikers, there was pandemonium in the penalty box. There was an element of fortune for the first two goals, certainly, but David Luiz was pulled all over the pitch and did little to further the claims of those who label him as a top-class defender. At one stage he appeared so disoriented, a long ball hit him on the back as he retreated towards goal.

Cahill did not fair much better and was perhaps fortunate not to concede a penalty after a clumsy tangle with Mirko Vucinic. Fabio Quagliarella, for all his enigmatic ability around the box, has only scored 12 goals in the whole of this calendar year. Vucinic likewise. This was not a goalscoring front line but it was up against a porous defence all too aware of its vulnerability.

This leads us onto the absence of the club captain, Terry. Putting to one side the various misdemeanours we do not need to revisit, there still stands a top-class centre-back. The 31-year-old may be discovering that all the fearless blocks and tackles he has made over the years are ravaging his body, but his supporters are being served a constant reminder of his quality. Unfortunately it is via his absence in the first team.

The four games he missed through suspension saw 10 goals conceded but in many ways it is the intangible aspects to Terry’s game that Chelsea miss the most. It is a familiar theory: “Captain, Leader, Legend” reassures one banner at Stamford Bridge. Take him out of the starting XI and carnage ensues. For all the potential of David Luiz, he looked rudderless, a bedraggled sailor without his skipper. Cahill must live with the ignominy of failing both at club and international test to be Terry’s rightful heir. On current evidence, he is a long way short.

Much has been made of the attacking wealth at the Blues’ disposal but fans are discovering in the most painful of ways that transition from a team of meticulous efficiency to a Barcelona MK II is not as simple as spending a fortune on gifted attackers. Granted, the best chance of the game (aside from Giovinco’s which was at a stage where the game was over) fell to Eden Hazard and had he opened the scoring instead of Quagliarella, the post-mortem may be different.

It was always unlikely that Chelsea would sail through this season, blowing everyone away with the glittering football Roman Abramovich has craved for so long but the small cracks seeping in must be at least mildly distressing. John Obi Mikel and David Luiz’s on-pitch spat hinted at frustration with Chelsea’s play and dampened an already dreary night.

The club are already without the sidelined Frank Lampard and the departed Didier Drogba, but losing Terry is one absent figurehead too many for the new Chelsea to manage. Often in times of strife you find out more than you expected of the characters around you and as Cech spoke to the ITV cameras afterwards and touched upon the idea of destiny in football it was hard not to wonder.

Destiny may have led to European glory last season, but it looks as if a different path entirely has been mapped out for the Blues this year. If it helps solve the conundrum at the back, Abramovich will force a smile through the Turin grimace as he looks for a new boss. Small mercies and all that.

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