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Chelsea succumb to Sunday League tactics

Jose Mourinho’s return to Stamford Bridge was a victorious one, with many sceptics planning the death, demise and funeral of Serie A it was left to the ‘Special One’ to show just what the best Italian teams are capable of producing in European competition. Inter controlled much of the game and hit Chelsea 11 minutes from time with a wonderful goal crafted by Sneijder and finished clinically by Samuel Eto’o. Chelsea were probably disappointed at half time to go in with the scores level, they had had a 15 minute spell that led to many chances and a goal was only avoided by a series of last ditch tackles and excellent blocks. Didier Drogba struck a wonderful half volley on the turn that was shaping into the top left corner but Maicon threw himself at the ball as if his life depended on it not reaching the target.

So far the Champions League has eluded both sides on show, Chelsea coming close in 2008. So it will be a doubly bitter pill to swallow for Carlo Ancelotti who earlier on this week outlined the competition as the club’s number one objective this season. He will have to concentrate on a more modest League and Cup double now.

Chelsea lined up as a 4-3-3 with Lampard, Mikel and Ballack in the midfield and Malouda, Drogba and Anelka up front. The good news for Chelsea was that they had a full back of sorts playing at left back rather than the emergency measure that was Florent Malouda. Though it may have been touted as the manager’s number one objective the Chelsea players tonight didn’t seem to be showing the sort of drive required to take them through to the next round. The side lacked width much like it had in the first leg, something which I had pointed to here as the best way to break Inter down.

Mourinho sent out a line-up that was incredibly more attacking than anyone expected. He selected what appeared to be a 4-2-1-3 when attacking and a 4-2-3-1 without the ball. In many ways it was a case of attack being the best form of defence. This article at puts forward the theory that Mourinho set out to ensure that Chelsea were stifled by occupying all of the Chelsea players. The midfield pairing of Motta and Cambiasso bossed the midfield and completely removed the threat of Lampard and Ballack from the game allowing Inter to take control of the midfield. Chelsea needed to seize back the middle of the pitch in the same way a chess player should aim to control the middle of the board.

With control of the midfield established Inter were able to hit Chelsea with the same simple tactic again and again, the Premier League side did not adapt to it and eventually it led to their downfall. Inter resorted to playing a series of meandering passes between players on one flank before pinging cross field balls for Maicon or Pandev to run onto. In the first half Maicon found himself with almost a quarter of the pitch empty but the Brazilian number one right back failed to capitalise on the ineptitude of the Chelsea back line. In the second half the focus of these attacks switched to the left hand side, Sneijder putting Milito through on goal but Milito fluffed the shot choosing full power rather than any level of accuracy.

This tactic of squeezing play into one area of the pitch before unloading balls onto the opposite flank where the opposing winger is waiting to collect a ball and attack the empty space is something I have seen utilised at amateur and semi-pro level to a great extent. I was very surprised to see a Premier League team succumb to this in Europe. The root cause is Chelsea’s width, while it is perfectly acceptable to field an asymmetric formation deploying Ballack, Anelka and Ivanovic leaves them very narrow on the right hand side and they will struggle to contain teams who attack well down the left hand side.

While Inter did well to beat Chelsea I think they will struggle to go far in the competition, at least they will not do so with ease. I think that they’ll come up short against sides who attack with plenty of width and that are able to contain Sneijder and Maicon. Man Utd for example could deploy Park down the left to keep Maicon tied up and put Fletcher on Sneijder and that will blunt the Italian attack significantly.

Another factor that will stop them clinching their first Champions League is their disciplinary record, they picked up 4 yellow cards and with the whole back line on a yellow before the 2nd leg began they will be without Lucio for the next side they are paired against in Friday’s draw. They were fortunate that the officials missed some of the wrestling that was occurring at corners, this could have changed the game dramatically if UEFA had done the decent thing and issued referees with directives to crack down on rugby tackles in the penalty area. Until there are 3 or 4 games where a sequence of penalties are awarded for such actions players will not learn that they cannot commit such atrocities.

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