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Apr 14, 2008

Chelsea fall short on star quality

Silverware appears the pre-requisite for Avram Grant to keep his job; win the Premier League or the Champions League and the Israeli's awkward tenure at Stamford Bridge may be extended for another year.

But even in the event of an improbable double, the individual honours will not be destined for West London, and not just because Grant is unlikely to be voted the best manager. The six-man shortlist for the PFA Player of the Year award was announced last week and none of the nominees were from Chelsea. And outside Stamford Bridge, few will quibble with a preference for Emmanuel Adebayor, Cesc Fabregas, Steven Gerrard, David James, Cristiano Ronaldo and Fernando Torres.

There is a precedent. But, when David Ginola ended the 1998/99 season as the double Footballer of the Year while Manchester United won an historic treble, it was in part due to a surfeit of outstanding candidates at Old Trafford, with Roy Keane, David Beckham and Dwight Yorke all attracting support.

Yet there should be no such tales of hard luck at Stamford Bridge. It is not merely that Chelsea are an essentially unloved team who attract grudging admiration but, with one or two exceptions, fail to stimulate the imagination. Because, their dogged refusal to abandon their pursuit of the title and comparatively simple progress in Europe notwithstanding, it is hard to identify a player who has consistently excelled. With his emphasis on industry and positional discipline, Jose Mourinho may have promoted the concept of the team as the star, but Grant's side have few who merit that description. Collective advancement has come without individual brilliance.

Injuries contribute, and no player has started three-quarters of their league programme, but it is also an indication that, with their players at their disposal, Chelsea have hardly overachieved. Their often joyless football has garnered points, but not the plaudits Messrs Ronaldo, Torres and Fabregas have received and not the votes they will earn.

Even identifying Chelsea's player of the season is a harder task than finding individuals who have prospered for briefer periods. Shaun Wright-Phillips, for instance, emerged as a genuine threat in January, but the final verdict on his season must include mentions of inconsistency and infuriating finishing as the sense that he would be better off elsewhere. That may apply, too, to Florent Malouda, who had a fine first month of the campaign before descending into anonymity.

Wayne Bridge and Alex have enjoyed effective spells in the side, but they remain essentially understudies while the remaining three summer recruits - Claudio Pizarro, Steve Sidwell and Tal Ben Haim - have failed. Andriy Shevchenko prospered in December, but has otherwise been a mediocrity on the margins, outshone by Salomon Kalou, who has proved useful but scarcely sensational.

Then there is Ashley Cole, yet to recapture the form he displayed at Arsenal that made him imagine he was the world's premier left-back. On the opposite flank, meanwhile, Juliano Belletti's defending is, at best, questionable and both he and Paulo Ferreira have found themselves behind Michael Essien in the pecking order at right-back.

Essien himself has endured a stop-start campaign with Grant strangely only deeming the formidable Ghanaian worthy of a place on the bench at times. John Obi Mikel's season has stalled since the African Nations Cup, following an eventful start. In contrast, January marked the start for Michael Ballack, who has been more effective after his underwhelming first year in England. The German has exerted an influence authoritatively without quite proving the authoritative figure envisaged when he was signed. Nicolas Anelka, another who can only be judged on his form in 2008, has often been among the rank of the replacements.

Which brings us to the spine of the side, traditionally the source of Chelsea's strength. But, impeded by injuries and making uncharacteristic errors against Arsenal and in the Carling Cup final versus Tottenham, Petr Cech has endured perhaps his poorest year in England. He may be the finest keeper in the Premier League but, on current form, James is the best. John Terry, another sidelined for spells, is not the dominant force he once was; it is understandable why his place in the England team is starting to be questioned.

Frank Lampard's goal return, albeit inflated by a quartet against Derby, remains excellent but, the victory against Arsenal aside, his impact in the biggest games has hardly been commensurate with his status. Didier Drogba delivered that win against the Gunners but Grant, in an unusually pointed remark, promptly commented that it was about time the Ivorian delivered. A forward who can be unplayable has often not played and when he has, he has frequently been some way below his considerable best, failing to shake off the impression his mind is elsewhere.

That leaves three alternative components of the spine as the strongest contenders for Chelsea's player of the year award. Claude Makelele's renaissance in 2008 is a reminder of the timeless excellence of his positioning and reading of the game. When fit, Ricardo Carvalho's consistency and timing in the tackle suggests he, not Terry, is Chelsea's best defender and Joe Cole has sparkled for the last three months, a fleet-footed and quick-witted solitary source source of invention. He may yet end the season as the best player in what could officially be the country's best team, but the personal awards will go elsewhere.

That may fuel Chelsea's persecution complex, but it raises the question of what they could achieve if they played to their potential. And while they pursue a remarkable double, they could make another bizarre impression on history if they win the Premier League and the Champions League without a single player who merits a place in the team of the season.


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