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Covid, injuries & a reluctance to blood youngsters: How Chelsea's title challenge is beginning to unravel

7:00 pm AEDT 20/12/21
Mason Mount Chelsea 2021-22
The Blues have won just three of their last eight Premier League matches, leaving them six points adrift of Christmas table-toppers Manchester City

Just over two weeks ago, Chelsea headed into their away match at West Ham as the Premier League leaders.

Now, following a run of just three wins in eight league matches that continued with Sunday's stalemate at Wolves, they find themselves in third place, six points off pace-setters Manchester City.

As if to highlight Chelsea's plight further, they are now as many points off City as fourth-placed Arsenal are off Thomas Tuchel's side.

Suddenly, January's matches against City and Liverpool have gone from being merely 'must-not-lose' encounters to almost certainly being 'must-win' if the European champions are to have any chance of maintaining a title challenge through the second half of the season.

"Did City win against Newcastle? Okay, so that's predictable," Tuchel said when informed of the leaders' 4-0 win on Tyneside during his post-match press conference on Sunday.

"The points that hurt are the ones we lost at home against Manchester United, Burnley and Everton. These are the six points that hurt, not today's dropped points."

Regardless, there is no doubt that Chelsea's failure to keep pace with CIty over the past few days could well come back to haunt them come May, albeit there are extenuating circumstances.

The Premier League rejected the club's plea for the Wolves game to be postponed amid a Covid-19 outbreak on Sunday, leaving Tuchel to name a matchday squad that included just six substitutes, two of whom were goalkeepers.

Seven players missed the game owing to coronavirus-related issues, with Jorginho one of those who was unavailable despite his status being unknown after returning both positive and negative test results.

A number of staff members were also missing as Omicron continues to run wild around the United Kingdom, but the powers-that-be ruled that because the Blues had more than 14 players available for the game, they did not have reason to postpone the fixture.

"They say, look, they have 14 players, but if you look at it in a bit more in detail you see Trevoh Chalobah with two training sessions [under his belt], Mateo Kovacic, one training session, you see N'Golo Kante has one training session," Tuchel argued.

"We took a huge health and safety risk physically, and not only from Covid. This was the decision and of course, that's it."

Injuries have played a major role in Chelsea's drop in form regardless of their Covid issues, with Tuchel having been without a swathe of key men through the autumn and into the winter.

Kante was only cleared to play for 45 minutes by the sports scientists at Cobham ahead of the Wolr but pushed on to complete the full 90 in the Midlands.

Just this week, Andreas Christensen picked up a back injury in training while Chalobah and Hakim Ziyech are set to be doubts for upcoming games against Brentford and Aston Villa after limping off on Sunday.

Kante, meanwhile, was only cleared to play for 45 minutes by the sports scientists at Cobham ahead of the Wolves match, but pushed on gamely to complete the full 90 in the west Midlands so as not to leave his team-mates short-handed.

Even if upcoming games are postponed, either because Chelsea's Covid issues worsen or because whole rounds of matches are called off, and the Blues' squad can get some key players back to full fitness, they will then face a huge fixture backlog further down the line as they continue to compete on five different fronts owing to their participation in February's Club World Cup.

It feels as though fate is conspiring to undermine Chelsea's title bid, but they also have not been as good as either City or Liverpool at papering over their problems when they do arise.

Both the top two have been willing to promote players from their academies to either make up the numbers on the bench or, in some cases, start key matches, but Tuchel has been reluctant to do so despite the strength of the Chelsea youth system.

And so while Chelsea remain an imposing force in both English and European football, on a week-to-week basis they are not the best at dealing with any unexpected difficulties that may arise, and as such they find themselves clinging onto their title challenge by their fingernails.

Yes, they could have had more luck and been given a helping hand by the authorities, but others are getting the job done right now where Chelsea are not.