Willian, Schurrle and Oscar are Chelsea's real weak links
CHELSEA v NEWCASTLE
(Tonight, 11pm, SingTel mio TV Ch 103, StarHub TV Ch 228)
Chelsea have a weak link, but it isn't Jose Mourinho's mouth.
On the contrary, the manager's annual lament that everyone is out to get his club serves only as a shield to deflect attention away from his side's shortcomings.
He knows what he's doing. The players on the right side of his attack do not.
Publicly, Mourinho rages against a "campaign" to influence referees' decisions in Chelsea games. Privately, he rages against sub-standard campaigners.
Willian, Andre Schuerrle and Oscar are falling below their manager's expectations.
There's no conspiracy to penalise Chelsea's players, just Mourinho's desperate ploy to protect them.
His orchestrated outbursts are always a barometer for the Blues' performances.
Before Christmas, he was a singing like a Lego brick. Everything was awesome.
When Chelsea won at Stoke on Dec 23 in one of their most clinically efficient displays, Mourinho was full of festive cheer. He couldn't smile wide enough.
But the grin has gone. It disappeared a couple of weeks ago, along with Chelsea's attacking impetus.
Like their manager, the Blues' swagger has been replaced with a snarl. Mourinho only whines when he's not winning.
After the Southampton draw, he savaged officials for booking Cesc Fabregas for diving, instead of awarding a clear penalty, to avoid the obvious.
Chelsea laboured. The draw was a real struggle. Most of all, Schuerrle was anonymous.
The World Cup winner enjoyed a rare start, thanks largely to a couple of wayward outings from Willian. Neither wide man came close to emulating the feats of Eden Hazard.
His consistency embarrassed his own teammates. The Belgian belittled them.
Throughout November and most of December, others over-compensated. Hazard, Fabregas and the impenetrable Nemanja Matic covered for the slightly lopsided nature of Chelsea's attack by delivering one sterling performance after another.
Hazard scored a fine goal against Southampton and Fabregas drifted into the box only to be penalised by myopic officials, but others were slipping.
The dip in standards was barely perceptible, but Mourinho saw it. Schuerrle was hauled off at half-time (and again against Watford in the FA Cup), but Willian struggled to seize the opportunity.
Tottenham, on the other hand, most certainly did.
Goal-scorer Danny Rose ruled down the Chelsea right, leaving Willian lost in his own wilderness.
Mourinho has a hole he can't plug with either Willian or Schuerrle.
He knows that his peerless plumber, Matic, favours the left side of central midfield. Even the Serb's leggy strides cannot cover the ground to fix the leak on the opposite flank.
In the 3-5 loss to Tottenham Hotspur, Branislav Ivanovic faced an invasion. Exposed and mercilessly exploited, he didn't stand a chance.
Chelsea's entire back four hardly covered itself in glory, but the fault line began with the front three. Willian certainly wasn't alone.
When it comes to Oscar, all that glitters is not gold.
Of all the regular starters in Chelsea's first 11, the Brazilian fits the Mourinho template the least. He's either brilliant or brittle. He dances past defenders or he bruises easily. And his manager has no taste for strawberries.
The World Cup hangover was understandable, but Oscar's form continues to ebb and flow too much for Mourinho's liking.
The idle talk concerning a possible move for Lionel Messi is precisely that, but there's no gold-plated statuette for guessing whom he might replace.
Hazard has been molded into an athletic, dogged artist. He's a magician with a middle-distance runner's lung capacity, a model Mourinho footballer.
Oscar falls just short.
Chelsea's winning habit of rotating their attacking trio continuously to confuse defences only works when all three are engaged, as they were against Stoke.
But two drifted against Tottenham. Hazard is a wizard, but he can't bend the basic laws of maths. One into three won't go.
In recent games, the Belgian has rotated positions to address the weaknesses not of his opponents, but his own teammates.
He, too, will falter without adequate support. Hazard, Fabregas, Matic and even Diego Costa cannot carry a couple of drifters indefinitely.
Mourinho has a long-standing policy of not stopping to pick up hitchhikers along his much-travelled road to glory. He'll leave them behind without so much as a backward glance.
And he must be growing weary of Chelsea's weak link.
Schuerrle, Willian and, to a lesser extent, Oscar should heed the warning.
Pick up the pace now or pack your bags at the end of the season.