At Chelsea, the reality of life without a striker begins to set in

Third place was always the smart bet for a team in transition; Torres and Eto’o are well past the point where they can contribute to an elite side

ALERT: If you’re a big Fernando Torres fan, you probably shouldn’t read any further.

For Chelsea Nation, today was disappointing.

[sigh]

The thing is, while I have enjoyed how well the Blues have played this year, not for a second have I thought they were likely to win the Prem (unless the other top sides simply handed it to them). I said before the year that the Blues were probably a third place team, and right now, with six games left, that prediction is probably the smart bet.

The main issue is that Chelsea doesn’t have a striker. Samuel Eto’o has his moments and is certainly doing well for a man of his advanced years, but neither he nor Fernando Torres is anywhere near the presence you need up top if you have aspirations of being an elite side.

But all year this one segment of the Chelsea community has kept up the chatter. We need a striker, I say. But we’re WINNING! they say. We’re TOP OF THE LEAGUE! they say. WE’RE SCORING GOALS, they say. This has been true to a point, but the bitter fact is that we have been outperforming our situation, in large part due to the fact that Jose Mourinho is the best tactician alive.

Especially grating has been the never-say-die, immune to facts pro-Torres cohort. I’m not exaggerating much when I compare them to Tim Tebow fans, who can never parse the difference between winning BECAUSE OF a player and winning DESPITE the player. Broncos fans who know a thing or two about football got well and truly sick of Tebow fundies who’d look at a game where Timmeh went 4-55 with six interceptions, ignore the fact that the defense gave up 12 total yards and returned three fumbles for touchdowns and conclude that TEBOW LED US TO VICTORY! If only coaches would give him a chance.

Finally the HMS Reality has docked at Stamford Bridge. We got a taste a few weeks ago when West Brom parked the bus on us and came away with a point, and today we saw the blueprint executed nicely by a Crystal Palace side mired in a relegation scrum. Part of why Chelsea has done so well this season – a big part – has been the utter brilliance of future world footballer of the year Eden Hazard. But every time he got the ball today he looked up and saw two Palace shirts, maybe three, and he was never afforded a square inch in which to operate or create.

Teams can do that more easily when you don’t have a striker on the pitch to worry about. Simply put your third best man-marking option on fair-haired Nando and run everyone else at Hazard and Oscar, pack the middle of the pitch and take your chances. Torres can’t create space and he can’t convert when his teammates create a chance for him (he had the tying goal gifted to him with three minutes left in regulation today and predictably found a way to clear it out of danger, lofting the ball well over the defenders, the keeper, the net, and the stewards). Not only that, he’s not much of a threat in the air, so you can’t reliably play it down the flank and cross it in the way you could with former strike hero Didier Drogba or, I don’t know, Romelu Lukaku.

And let me preempt the response that I know is coming – that Torres can’t score when his teammates provide him with no service. We’ve all been on the pitch with guys who you just couldn’t afford to pass the ball to, because if you did they were going to lose it. (Heck, I’ve BEEN that guy.) Over the past three seasons we’ve all seen midfielders on the break make the decision to keep it themselves or pass the other way, and when you go back and study the games leading up to that it isn’t hard to understand why: the official term for a pass to Torres is “turnover.” So let’s get our cause and effect straight. It isn’t that Torres doesn’t score because he gets no service, it’s that he gets no service because he’s a donkey.

In sum, with Torres, you have no Plan B. And it’s been a very long time since he was anything like a Plan A.

None of this is cause for panic. As I say, this was never going to be Chelsea’s year, and while I’m disappointed that the club hasn’t been able to put away scuffers like the Baggies and Palace, it has nonetheless been a nice season, all things considered. There is every reason to be optimistic about next year, when I fully expect the Blues to be the favorites. I expect them to buy a real striker over the summer and call Lukaku home from loan, and that should hopefully give opposing defenses a bit more to think about when Hazard comes steaming down the flank.

So now it’s down to City and the Scouse. City looks like the favorite to hang on, but there’s something about this Liverpool team, which is managed by the man I hope eventually replaces Mourinho whenever he decides to move on and take the reins of the Portuguese national side, Brendan Rodgers.

For those Torres fans who ignored my warning not to read this, the comment box is below. I feel certain you’ll be able to explain to me why I’m wrong….

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