Injuries no excuse as Boro expose Chelsea’s reliance on Palmer

There has to come a point where Chelsea are about more than Cole Palmer and injuries. Both issues were exposed in an unflattering light by Middlesbrough on Tuesday as Hayden Hackney gave the Championship side a 1-0 lead in their Carabao Cup semifinal clash with the second leg to come at Stamford Bridge in a fortnight.

Chelsea’s best may still be enough to rescue the tie and book a place in February’s final at Wembley but the angry scenes at full time suggest manager Mauricio Pochettino needs to start making the Blues more than the sum of their expensively-assembled parts sooner rather than later.

Some of the Chelsea fans who travelled to Riverside Stadium voiced their anger at the final whistle as several players went to acknowledge their support at the end of a display that can be added to a growing catalogue of mirror-image defeats: create chances, fail to take them and concede a soft goal.

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Sources have told ESPN that there is a significant amount of sympathy within the club’s hierarchy for the fact injuries have robbed Pochettino of fielding his best team regularly. It is not an exaggeration to say that he may never even have trained with his ideal line-up given the fitness problems that have blighted their campaign.

But while Chelsea counted 11 players unavailable here, Middlesbrough had 12 sidelined and lost two more to injury in the opening 20 minutes as both Emmanuel Latte Lath and Alex Bangura limped off.

Yet, Michael Carrick’s side had a game plan, stuck to it, and reaped the rewards. Hackney’s 37th-minute strike was one of only two shots on target Middlesbrough managed all evening but they spent most of the second half operating with a degree of comfort as Chelsea, once again, struggled to break down a team defending deep with organisation and commitment.

“We made some mistakes and we were punished for that, in football that happens,” said Pochettino. “We have to be pushing. If you assess the performance, then overall we were the better side, we created more chances and had the clear chances. But, we didn’t score.

“That has happened this season and there has been a lot of games we have not won because we were not clinical enough. We have a lack of goals, but not creating chances. We are creating many chances but not scoring them and if you don’t score then it is difficult to win.”

It usually falls to Palmer to make the difference. Chelsea went into this game with three consecutive wins, the second of which showcased Palmer’s promise in delivering two goals and an assist as the Blues edged past Luton. He could have ended with a similar haul here but this is why you shouldn’t solely rely on 21-year-olds with limited experience at the top level to achieve your aims. Sometimes on the journey to their peak, they inevitably fall short and Palmer did so here.

After having an early sighter beaten away by Middlesbrough goalkeeper Tom Glover, Palmer was gifted a golden chance to give Chelsea a 31st-minute lead. Jonathan Howson played a square pass which Palmer stretched to intercept and suddenly he had time and space to pick his spot from the edge of the box. He dragged his shot wide.

Hackney punished Chelsea at the other end before Palmer wasted an even better chance in first-half stoppage time, turning a rebound over from four yards after Glover had failed to catch a tame Enzo Fernández shot. There was still time before the interval for another Palmer effort, this time of his own making but a weak shot could not find a route past Glover.

Despite registering 81% possession in the second half, Chelsea managed just two more shots on target — making it five across the 90 minutes — and Middlesbrough were left to celebrate a victory which gives them ample reason to adopt the same game plan in west London, one which time and again the Blues have faltered against.

It says a lot about the current state of Chelsea’s project that they are so reliant on Palmer to save them, a player they only pivoted to late in the market after a deal to sign Crystal Palace‘s Michael Olise collapsed at the last minute.

Moisés Caicedo is undoubtedly a better player than he has shown in a Chelsea shirt so far but his defending for Middlesbrough’s goal was laughable. The most expensive player in British football history seemed more preoccupied with keeping his hands behind his back than getting goal side of the onrushing Hackney as Isaiah Jones crossed from the left.

Such individual mistakes are compounding the collective malaise and the resulting frustration explains the hostile scenes at full time. Thiago Silva appeared to act as peacemaker in trying to diffuse the visiting fans’ anger.

“I didn’t see what happened,” said Pochettino. “I cannot say nothing about that. We can understand that our fans will be disappointed but there are still 90 minutes to play.”

Chelsea simply have to be better than this. They still might rouse themselves to reach a Wembley final in Pochettino’s first season and from this position, a trophy would help silence doubts about his own future while galvanising a young group thrown together across three transfer windows in 18 months.

But Middlesbrough produced a cohesion in adversity that Chelsea can only dream of at present. It is down to Pochettino to change that.

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