Petr Cech has warned the younger members of Chelsea's squad that their inexperience offers no excuse for under-achievement as the European Cup winners now seek to add the global crown by triumphing in this week's Club World Cup.
Chelsea have already stumbled out of the Champions League, the first holders to fail to emerge from their group, and a recent seven-match winless sequence in the Premier Leagueleague sees them trail Manchester United in the title race by 10 points despite Saturday's encouraging victory at Sunderland. That shoddy form cost Roberto Di Matteo his job last month and with older heads such as John Terry and Frank Lampard absent through injury, it has been left to the likes of Cech to inspire a new generation of players at the club.
The 30-year-old goalkeeper has taken over as captain in recent weeks – he may be usurped now by Lampard, who returned from a calf injury with a cameo on Wearside and could start Thursday's semi-final against Monterrey – and has heard the arguments that players such as Eden Hazard and Oscar need time to adjust to the Premier League, as well as the level of expectation at the club. Instead, he has sought to take them under his wing in an attempt to prompt a more urgent response.
"You don't need the armband to feel more responsibility," said Cech. "It's the same for any player: everybody relies on you. You are the one who tries to help people through the difficult periods. Especially young and new players who haven't been through that situation before. This is where your experience can count and you can try to help them. It's not about shouting and screaming, or even harsh words. It's about finding the right balance to remind people where they are, or what you want to achieve, and what we should do to improve. You can use different words but it's not about how many times you start with the F-words. It's not about that. It's about people who should feel the responsibility for the situation and recognise a responsibility to get out of it.
"It's easy to say: 'I'm new and young, so I'm looking away from it.' Everybody is responsible and has to help the team get out of the situation. But really you just need to find the right way to do it and as soon as we started playing better again and got better results, you could see the confidence in the younger players rising higher, faster. Now we want to take the games where we've played very well into this tournament and, if we have success here, we can take it into the Premier League."
For all that last week's victories were timely ahead of the Club World Cup, in truth neither Nordsjaelland nor, indeed, Sunderland offered much resistance. Yet Rafael Benítez can spy progress within the set-up after such an awkward start to his tenure. "I could see that Chelsea were a great team with great players, but still the balance of the team was something we could improve," the interim manager said. "With the midfielders and the strikers we're trying to find the tempo of the game higher when we are in possession, but at the same time we had to improve the defence.
"The team was conceding goals for 10 games [in a row] so the first two games, two clean sheets was a positive message. Still, getting the balance is where we have to be stronger. You train with them and try and get the message across, correcting them or allowing them to express themselves and then adjusting the game. It's just a case of questions, answers and work on the pitch."
The clearest positive to date, however, has been the return to goalscoring form of Fernando Torres. The Spain forward was mobbed upon arrival in Yokohama by an adoring local public, a reflection of his status internationally, yet his record at the club since his £50m move from Liverpool hardly justifies such adulation. Indeed, his toils at Stamford Bridge had served to undermine successive Chelsea managers. Yet Torres can now at least point to four goals registered in two games, having registered only once previously since 6 October, rewards that have offered the team a timely fillip.
"He's happy, yes," added Benítez. "Everybody has been talking for months about Fernando having to score more goals, so to score four in a week he must be pleased. Anyone would be, but especially the striker. It is positive and the fact people are not asking so much about him means they are getting used to seeing him scoring again. I've noticed the difference in him, too. But the whole team is doing really well. I'm not surprised because they are all training very well. There's no one who is lazy. Everyone is trying to do the right things."
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image: © Ben Sutherland