Expert Interview: Will the striker issue cost Chelsea in the Champions League?

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In anticipation of the massive Champions League ties in the Quarter-Final stage, we’ve done something special for our build-up. Eight teams, eight experts, each giving us their insight into their team’s chances, tactical set ups and bold predictions.

Joe Tweeds is the expert for this piece focusing on Chelsea. Joe is a Chelsea supporter, and Editor of Plains of Almeria. You can find him on twitter @JoeTweeds

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Firstly, what are your thoughts on Chelsea’s Champions League campaign so far?

It has been a mixed bag and somewhat reminiscent of our domestic form. There were two inexplicable losses to Basel surrounded by comfortable outings against Schalke. In truth the draw was kind and other results were particularly kind to Chelsea during the group stage. The similarities with poor league results were apparent. The deeper Chelsea get in the Champions League the more likely they are to play well. There was an onus on Chelsea to be the aggressor in the majority of their group games. Juxtapose the style of play in the Basel and Schalke games. Chelsea struggled as the proactive side but destroyed Schalke, twice, as a side intent on countering.

During the first leg (against Galatasaray) it appeared that Mancini had got his tactics incredibly wrong as his choice of midfielders allowed Chelsea to control the game well enough. A swift change before half-time balanced things up and truthfully Chelsea would have been the happier with the 1-1 draw. The second leg was far more straightforward and an early Eto’o goal and a second before half-time allayed any fears. Chelsea have not sparkled in Europe this season, but given the current makeup of Mourinho’s squad that was unlikely. With the progression into the latter rounds we will have a chance to see Chelsea in their element. Bringing teams onto them, pinching possession and countering as quickly as possible.

It has been well documented throughout the season how Chelsea have a striker issue which could prove costly. Do you think this will be more telling in the Champions League?

It is not only a striker problem but a question of character as well. Yes, there is a gigantic striker shaped hole in this Chelsea squad, but there is a distinct lack of leadership from that position. Samuel Eto’o is the only player to show any sort of form that would suggest he is the first choice. When you have a £50m striker intent on hiding against teams you would expect Chelsea to beat, things are not well. The lack of a quality option up front really hinders the entire team. With no lateral movement opposition defences can play in a linear fashion and have no fear of being manipulated. Torres is painful to watch when he drops deep with his back to goal, equally he can no longer stretch defences with his pace. To compensate you would like to see him drag his centre back slightly wider to create space centrally. Again, this is not something that he does.

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What this lack of movement and respect from opposition defensive units creates is problems for Chelsea’s attacking midfielders. Hazard suffers in particular when he is regularly tasked with beating four men before he has a chance to do anything with the ball. You often see his opposing winger, full-back, right centre back and defensive midfielder gravitate towards zones he is likely to cut into when receiving the ball. Add a top class striker and a left-footed full-back overlapping and the response to dealing with his is different. Luckily, it is not something that will prove to be telling in Europe. Chelsea can theoretically get away with not having a quality striker if their first choice XI is available. The game therefore becomes more about pressing, pinching the ball and attempting to obtain favourable 1-on-1 situations.

Mourinho seems to favour these sort of fixtures and is tactically astute in big games. How important will the José factor be for the remainder of the Champions League campaign?

I think we can see from Blanc’s comments about not wanting to enter a war of words that he is already having an impact. More importantly and PSG specific is that Mourinho knows exactly what makes Ibrahimović tick. Furthermore, I think we are more suited currently to European football than domestic games. For reasons I have outlined above, but Mourinho seems more comfortable in being able to utilise his squad to produce a counter-attacking display of quality rather than front foot dominance. It remains to be seen how well Chelsea can play against their toughest opponent in Europe this season, but given PSG’s imbalance as a very top-heavy attacking team I would hope we might nick a result.

José is likely to use this to his advantage – Chelsea’s back four is one of the meanest in Europe and he must fancy his chances, even without a striker, against PSG’s gung-ho defence. If we bypass PSG then Mourinho’s importance increases exponentially. The bigger the opposition the better this Chelsea team seem to play and you would think being drawn against an elite side would not worry the Special One. He is in his element scheming ways of bringing teams down who will more than likely look to attack from the outset.

Zlatan Ibrahimović has been having an incredible season with PSG. How do you think Chelsea can stop him? Or is there another key man for the French side?

I am a huge fan of Ibrahimović, so it is going to be interesting seeing him in person. Without question PSG’s talisman is a world class operator and can not only provide a physical point of reference, but has the technical quality to conjure something out of nothing. Terry is arguably the form defender in the tournament and it will be an intriguing battle. However, Cavani is equally as dangerous so they will necessitate some special attention. Personally, I am worried by PSG’s midfield. As a unit they have a similar level of fluency found in Juventus and stylistically they complement one another extremely well. This is arguably where Matić will be missed the most as he has dominated against quality opposition in this central area. John Obi Mikel is a seasoned European campaigner and often looks more confident in these types of ties. His disciplined defensive role will be called upon to halt PSG’s eloquence.

What would your starting XI for the first leg against PSG be?

We are a little unclear on injuries at the moment but if fit:

Čech; Ivanović, Cahill, Terry, Azpilicueta; Mikel, Luiz; Hazard, Willian, Ramires; Eto’o.

I fear that Eto’o and Luiz will not be fit though so: Čech; Ivanović, Cahill, Terry, Azpilicueta; Mikel, Ramires; Hazard, Oscar, Willian; Torres.

We attempt to track the progress of the best young players as much as time allows under our #TalentRadar and Scout Report features. Which youngster coming through from Chelsea are you most excited about?

If you take a glance to Chelsea’s results at youth level, they match up with anything in world football. Consistently excellent progression in the FA Youth Cup and U19 European results to boot, one would assume that Chelsea were bursting with young talent. The level of talent is unquestionable, but the exceptionally rare graduation of any of these players into the first team makes it difficult to be excited by any prospect. There are a few players on loan who I have high hopes for, but ultimately they need to displace players who have been bought for vast sums of money and who regularly feature for their country.

I have written at length about Ruben Loftus-Cheek, but would like to concentrate on Lewis Baker for this feature. Baker is a multi-functional midfielder who is entirely two-footed and has been at Chelsea forever. It is very rare that you see an English player who is technically exemplary and shines against his continental counterparts. Baker can crisply strike a football with either foot and is often seen taking set-pieces with his right or left foot. This is not a fad as Baker will score free kicks with either foot. Nor is it some elaborate trick that hides any failings within his skill set.

Chelsea are very big on ensuring that players rotate across a whole host of positions during their education. Baker has played extensively as a holding player, in a box-to-box capacity and as a number ten. While he is adept at youth level in each area I feel his true worth can be found in become a tempo setter in midfield. He has a lot of similarities to Modrić stylistically, in that he can both ghost through midfield with the ball and dictate play with crisp incisive passing. Part of me hopes that Baker at least gets a look in during pre-season, or ultimately what’s the point?

The cynical side of me treats the Chelsea academy like a sort of exercise in stockbroking. Bring players in, develop them and then sell them for a sizeable profit. The buy low, sell high mantra that enabled Chelsea to re-sign Matić for a minimal outlay after a chunky profit on De Bruyne. Baker is a technically gifted and composed English midfielder; the type of player who could potentially be a fulcrum for club and country if developed. The issue will always remain with Chelsea’s academy policy and whether the trust is there to go with a youth product or sign the next best thing from Brazil/Belgium/etc.

Finally, if you were to make a prediction for the tie, who do you see going through? Any particular scoreline?

I am never a fan or score predictions but if Chelsea can score in Paris I would think they can go through. A 1-1 draw in Paris and 1-0 victory at home would be great, but I honestly cannot call this game. If Chelsea score first we have every chance of progressing, but chasing the game is not something that sits well within this current squad.

Over to you. What do you think of Chelsea’s chances?

For the rest of our interviews from this series and all our other interviews, head this way.

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