Chelsea led the Premier League from wire to wire last season, finally clinching a comfortable championship with three games left.
The surprising thing about 2015, then, has not been that Chelsea has had a rough start and a bit of a title hangover. What’s been surprising is how comprehensively terrible Chelsea has been. The Blues have lost eight times in 15 matches, after losing just three times all of last year.
Should Chelsea lose on the road Monday against league-leading Leicester City, it is not inconceivable that the club could plummet into the relegation places in the bottom three of the standings — a shocking spot for the formerly all-conquering champion.
Chelsea has lost the air of inevitability that used to surround its team. Last season, you could expect Chelsea to put together a torrent of early attacks, score a goal or two, then apply a defensive chokehold to the game and calmly run out the clock. The Blues seldom fell behind, and even when they did, it never felt like they weren’t in control — more like a draw was the best the other team could hope for, because the one guarantee was that Chelsea wasn’t going to be held down for long.
That sense is entirely gone now. When Chelsea gives up a goal, you can see the players start to hang their heads; an air of “here we go again” surrounds them. It’s almost as if, during a season in which they hardly lost, the Blues forgot how to fall behind and still come back.
Center back John Terry, now 35 years old, is on the downside of his long career, and he’s getting no help from the rest of the team’s back four, which appears just as creaky. Eden Hazard, who this time last season was being compared to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, hasn’t scored a goal this year. Cesc Fabregas, the linchpin in the team’s midfield, looks disinterested at the best of times and actively malicious at the worst.
Manager Jose Mourinho has tried dropping almost every player in the team, but nothing has worked — and his players haven’t responded well to the changes.
Mourinho publicly lowered his expectations for the league last weekend, after Chelsea lost at home to lowly Bournemouth. The manager said his team is now chasing a top-six finish, not a title. It’s worth mentioning that his side made the knockout round of the Champions League, and still has a chance for glory there, but the problems continue at home in England. With a few more losses like the one to Bournemouth, some will start to wonder if perhaps Chelsea, with only 15 points in the standings from 15 games, shouldn’t instead chase the 40 points that usually prevent relegation.
Soccer short takes
• MLS announced a desire to expand to 28 teams, as interest in new franchises continues to boom. Sacramento appears to be a shoo-in; the city is moving forward with plans to build a downtown stadium, and has drawn big crowds for its USL team. San Antonio, where the city and county partnered to buy the local stadium with the goal of landing an MLS team, may be a front-runner as well.
• Swansea City fired manager Garry Monk this week, an abrupt end to an excellent story.
Monk played for Swansea from 2004-14, for much of the time as the team’s captain, and went directly from playing to managing the team in early 2014. He helped the team escape relegation last year, guiding it to an eighth-place finish. But one win in his last 11 league games was enough for Swansea to give him the boot.
• Gophers forward Simone Kolander was named to the third All-America team and first All-Big Ten team. The junior scored 10 goals this season to lead Minnesota.
Weekend Watch Guide
Premier League: Manchester United at Bournemouth, 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Ch. 11. Bournemouth’s win over Chelsea last week was justly hailed as the biggest victory in the club’s history, but a home win over Manchester United would probably supplant it. United manager Louis van Gaal is under fire for his team’s sputtering offense, and needs some excitement out of his team this week.
Bundesliga: Borussia Monchengladbach at Bayer Leverkeusen, 11:30 a.m. Saturday, FS2. Monchengladbach ended Bayern Munich’s hopes of an undefeated season last week, beating the German giants 3-1 at home. The Foals haven’t lost a league game since mid-September. They’ll go up against Leverkusen, which is playing well behind Mexican striker Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez.
La Liga: Real Madrid at Villareal, 1:30 p.m. Sunday, beIN Sports. Real Madrid is only four points behind Barcelona at the top of La Liga, but given how well Barcelona is playing, the gulf seems far wider than that. The Madrid faithful have responded by booing the team and calling for manager Rafa Benitez to be fired. Villareal will be a testing away trip for Real.
International women’s friendly: U.S. vs. China, 6 p.m. Sunday, ESPN2. U.S. Soccer scheduled a number of winter matches for the women’s national team, but the pair against China this week — one on Sunday, and another on Wednesday — might be the best tests of the bunch. This is a rematch of the World Cup quarterfinals last summer, when a Carli Lloyd header won it for the U.S.