2013 is going to be a massive year for Chelsea FC, their current manager incumbent Rafael Benitez and Fernando Torres. When Juan Mata is included, these three Spaniards' performances will determine how well the Blues will finish out the 2012-13 season, and what direction they will take next season.
Benitez was appointed interim Chelsea manager in November, the 10th of the Roman Abramovich Empire, and was immediately given the task of righting the Blues’ ship. Under the previous manager, Roberto Di Matteo, the Pensioners had performed reasonably well in the Premier League.
However, a run of just one win in eight matches, including an embarrassing 3-0 defeat to Juventus in the Champions League, meant the well-liked Italian had to go. The loss to Juve was further compounded by the fact that it meant the Blues had been mathematically eliminated from the competition they had won last May. And so Roman cast the die and brought in Benitez.
The ex-Liverpool boss was immediately ostracised by a section of the Chelsea faithful for comments he made in 2007. But a string of good results combined with Manchester City's surprise poor form has won him some favour with some fans.
When Benitez took over, Chelsea were a wreck and heading for a consecutive season outside the top four. Considering that the Blues pay the highest wages in the Premier League at £189.5 million per season, finishing outside the Champions League places would be disastrous as well as embarrassing.
Di Matteo had to go because his win/loss record had the Blues in danger of falling out of the top four, never mind being knocked out of the Champions League itself.
A quick comparison of the duo's records as Chelsea manager makes for interesting reading.
Di Matteo's record reads as: W-11 D-5 L-6 (winning percentage of 50%).
Benitez's record reads as: W-7 D-2 L-2 (winning percentage of 72%).
It is no coincidence that this significant change in form comes with the Blues playing far more solidly under the Spaniard than under Di Matteo.
Di Matteo liked his team to play a narrow 4-2-3-1, which saw Fernando Torres' game suffer as Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar crowded the striker’s area. This set-up also had the knock-on effect of allowing the opposition natural width from the full-back positions, which in turn put the defence under pressure.
It also practically divided the team into an attacking section and a defensive section. Ironically, these are the very tactics that helped Chelsea to that historic Champions League win over Bayern Munich last May. However, this season, these uncultured tactics led to the Italian's dismissal.
Since Benitez took over, it is very noticeable that Hazard is now playing wider than under the previous regime. The same can be said of Oscar and Victor Moses, who now seem to share the duties on the right-hand side.
The introduction of Victor Moses has proved hugely important for Benitez. Under Di Matteo, the ex-Wigan star only featured 12 times from 22 games. Under Benitez, he has played in 10 of 11 matches.
This slight evolution in tactics from Benitez has worked in three ways. The opposition now no longer have an automatic out-ball to the full-back, Fernando Torres now has more space to play in, and the defence, which had become so over-worked, now looks like it has all the time in the world.
Playing far more solidly, because of a simple change in the wide players duties and positions, Chelsea have conceded just nine goals in 10 games whilst scoring 27.
As 2013 rolls around and the second half of the season begins, Blues fans should be rightly optimistic.
They have two particularly tough sections of the season. The first sees the Blues play four matches between December 30 and January 8, beginning with a trip to Everton. After that, the fixtures revert to normal and fall very favourably with extremely winnable fixtures punctuated by the odd difficult game.
Considering that Spurs, United and Everton should have some sort of end-of-season interest, while Villa will undoubtedly be involved in a relegation battle, the final run-in is most difficult. Add in Swansea and a return to Anfield on April 20, and you can see where Chelsea's season will be determined.
As it stands, and considering their remaining fixtures, it becomes very obvious that Chelsea should not be ruled out of the title race just yet.
They are currently 11 points behind the leaders Manchester United, but with a very favourable run of fixtures to come and none of the distraction that the Champions League is likely to bring. Although it must be said that Manchester United may not have any of those distractions after March either. The Red Devils play Real Madrid on February 13 and March 5.
With a manager who has obviously steadied the ship and changed the set-up to reflect a more solid team, the one player who will and has benefited most is Fernando Torres.
It is strange to say it, considering that Torres is a world-class finisher, but no manager other than Benitez seems capable of bringing the best out of him.
At Liverpool, the ex-Atletico Madrid striker fired home 81 goals in 142 games (ratio of 1:1.75). At Chelsea he has scored just 26 times from 97 games (ratio of 1:3.7). Since Benitez took over in November, his ratio over 11 games reads as 1:1.6, or seven goals in 11 games.
Under Di Matteo, Torres had scored just seven times from the previous 25 matches.
There can be little doubt that Torres is enjoying the new freedom by his supporting midfielders being pushed wider. This automatically makes him the focal point of almost every single attack, whilst also allowing him to suck defenders towards the halfway line when Chelsea are defending, before using his incredible pace to expose the space in behind on a counterattack.
He is benefiting massively from Benitez's new tactical philosophy. It seems certain that another striker will be brought in the January transfer window, but Torres will remain the pinnacle of Benitez's 4-2-3-1 formation going forward. He is capable of so much more than Chelsea fans have seen, and if given the right platform, he could fire them to the top of the league.
One other player who is benefiting from the new Benitez regime is Juan Mata. Playing in a far more central role rather than shifting and swapping positions with Oscar and Hazard, the Spaniard is also reaping the rewards of being allowed far more space by his teammates.
He is now, undoubtedly, the main play maker in the Chelsea set-up and plays, more or less, in Torres' slipstream.
From just behind his international teammate, Mata dictates the Blues' attacking play and now gets into far more goal-threatening positions than ever before. He too has added goals under Benitez and has scored six goals in his last nine games compared to seven in his previous 28.
What this all adds up to is that 2013 should be a very enjoyable one for Fernando Torres and Juan Mata. They will continue to flourish under Rafa, and as the end of the season nears, we should be prepared for some "Three Amigos" style headlines.
They definitely have the potential to overtake Manchester City. As unlikely as it may be, if the same kind of luck that shone on Di Matteo last season returns, they could even end up as Champions come May.
The real impetus for Benitez, though, is the "cup final" against Liverpool, at Anfield, in April. There would be no better way to win a new contract under Roman Abramovich than to stuff the team that sacked him, while also possibly consigning their latest project to the wilderness.
2013, and Chelsea have everything to play for. Titles, cups, top-four finishes and the most important of all, lost reputations.
Statistics provided by www.soccerbase.com and www.premierleague.com.
You can look me up on Twitter @WillieGannon
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