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Feb 7, 2009

Chelsea's winter of discontent

It seems as if all has not been well at Chelsea for some time and on a day when under-fire manager Luiz Felipe Scolari was on the receiving end of a barrage of abuse from his own fans, you have to wonder whether the discontent stems from the top.

You don't have to dip too long back into the football timeline to recall the days when Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich got all excited at the prospect of a transfer window.

For Chelsea's billionaire owner, the bi-annual chance to snare some of the world's greatest talent and throw them into his own fantasy football team made his icy Siberian pulse skip at a potentially dangerous rate. Wielding a chequebook no-one in the game could rival, transfer windows were akin to Christmas for the Russian Santa who revelled in the reality that he could buy any player he wanted merely by clicking his fingers.

Clapping like a laughing seal in his seat perched perfectly above the half-way line at Stamford Bridge, this was a man content that his monstrous investment was giving him all the joy he craved and plenty more besides as Jose Mourinho brought trophies aplenty to Chelsea.

Yet slowly but surely, his fantasy has been chipped away. Inch by inch, his dream has become something more akin to an annoyance until we reached the moment when the most recent transfer window passed without Abramovich spending a penny.

Okay, winger Ricardo Quaresma arrived on loan last Monday, yet such modest spending power is not what manager Luiz Felipe Scolari was promised when he agreed to step into a job that had been the most lucrative in football until the moment he arrived.

While there is little doubt that manager Scolari could do with a chunk of the Abramovich fortune to revive the fortunes of his flagging team, the cash tap has been turned off by Chelsea's Tzar and it may not be flowing again any time soon.

Rumours of Abramovich selling Chelsea to Arab investors have been strongly denied, but there seems little doubt that his passion for the club is waning and it's all-too predictable after their most troubled season in his five years at the club. After all, the boss who travelled the world watching his team a few years back doesn't even bother coming to games of this modest nature any more. He is clearly slipped into being a part time fan these days.

This was always going to be a crucial season for Abramovich as with a new lady in his life and other business interests to distract him in these times of world financial decline, he needed his football club to enthuse him all over again. Instead, Scolari and his team are doing all they can to finally break his dream of turning Chelsea into a genuine football giant and it means the next three months may be crucial for their short and long term future.

Defeats against Manchester United and Liverpool in the last few weeks punctured Chelsea's hopes of defying their doubters and mounting a serious push for the Premier League title this term and this dour draw against an improving Hull side may well have finished off their challenge once and for all.

Looking like an aging side without the motivation or direction required to take on a rampant United side, Chelsea's decline this season has been stark after a promising start that led many to install them as title favourites. Pressure has been mounting on Scolari for some time and the feeling is he may not be the man to reinvigorate Chelsea or their lavishly wealthy owner, yet games like this should provide the ideal opportunity for the world class players still on the club's books to prove they are not past their best.

However, the aura Mourinho's Chelsea built up has been lost and even though Phil Brown's side have barely been able to pick up a point in recent weeks, they started this game with an attitude that suggested they had no fear against such illustrious opponents.

While Chelsea dominated first half in terms of possession, Hull worked hard enough to be level at the break. John Terry missed the chance of the opening period as Hull keeper Matt Duke dropped the ball in the first minute of the game before Hull nearly claimed a surprise lead when Kevin Kilbane's late header flicked off the post.

Craig Fagan had the chance to give Hull a lead as he burst through on goal with just the keeper to beat after 53 minutes, yet his weak finish let Chelsea off the hook. However, it was the cue for some Chelsea fans to start jeering Scolari and the boos merely raised in volume as he bizarrely sent full-back Juliano Belletti to try and change the course of the game.

With Didier Drogba and Deco on the bench, it was hard to understand why he sent on a full-back and then asked him to play in midfield. Predictably, the plan had little effect and the cries of 'you don't know what you're doing' gathered momentum as Hull held out for a draw with considerable ease.

Scolari refused to face the media after his latest setback and instead sent assistant Ray Wilkins to answer the tough questions. "It was disappointing to hear our own supporters turn on the manager," said the former England midfielder. "They pay their money to come to the ground so they are entitled to boo, but I though it was unnecessary to say the least.

"To say Felipe doesn't know what he is doing after all he has achieved in the game is a tad out of order. He understands the problems we have and is working tirelessly to solve them. The good thing is that the foreign managers in England probably don't understand what is being chanted when supporters are giving them a bit of abuse. I'm certainly not going to volunteer to tell him about it!"

Wilkins went on to admit Chelsea's hopes of wining the title are all but over after this draw. "Catching Manchester United will be very difficult now," he added. "We will continue to fight, but they are in top form and we need to make sure we don't slip out of the fourth position we currently find ourselves in. Second place is not good enough for Chelsea, but we have to work harder to get to first."

Hull boss Phil Brown declared himself 'ecstatic' to keep a clean sheet and admitted his side 'could have nicked all three points if we had taken our chances'. However, with the greatest of respect to a hard working Hull side, this day was all about Chelsea and their increasingly isolated manager.

Some may argue Scolari has been unlucky to arrive at Chelsea just as Roman Abramovich appears ready to leave, yet the Brazilian needs to find a winning formula very soon or his reign as Stamford Bridge boss will end in despair.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Ian Ashbee The Hull skipper worked tirelessly to break up Chelsea's attacks and he did a great job of stopping the supply line to Nicholas Anelka. His work rate set the tone for Phil Brown's side.

FOOD WATCH: Sweet and sour chicken with egg fried rice was an ambitious effort from the Chelsea catering team, but they pulled if off with aplomb. As ever, the press are treated like royalty at Stamford Bridge.

OUCH: It was a cold day in West London, so the pain rippling through Hull's Kamil Zayatte as Frank Lampard's first half free kick crashed into his 'delicate area' must have been intense.

BROWN BANTER: Phil Brown promised to 'buy Didier Drogba a drink' if he went easy of his team when he was sent on as a second half substitute. The Chelsea may seemed happy to oblige.

BOOT HORROR: As if the lurid orange goalkeeping shirt worn by Chelsea keeper Hilario was not bad enough, Didier Drogba emerged as a second half substitute sporting shocking bright lime green boots. Fashion victim or what!

CHELSEA VERDICT: It is hard to find too many positives in a display that was frustrating from the off. Chelsea do not look equipped to win anything this season and while Luiz Felipe Scolari has been given little chance to shape the team in his own style, he will ultimately carry the can for their decline.

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