EPL Preview: Goal-shy Chelsea V West Ham, Manchesters fight for top
Chelsea's Fernando Torres, without a goal in 648 minutes (Reuters file)
By Steve Douglas
Having resolved Chelsea's defensive problems, Rafa Benitez must provide a solution to the team's lack of bite up front if the European champions are to stay in the Premier League title race.
Consecutive 0-0 draws, to Manchester City on Sunday (UKT) and Fulham on Wednesday, in the opening matches of Benitez's reign as interim manager have left Chelsea seven points adrift of leader Manchester United in the standings.
Fan reaction at Stamford Bridge is alternating between anger and apathy but a win - and some much-needed goals - in Saturday's match at London rival West Ham would lift the mood.
"We need to improve, but I have no idea how long it will take," Benitez said after the dour draw with Fulham, where he was met with a frosty silence before the game and a loud chorus of boos after it.
Under Benitez, Chelsea has managed only four shots on target - a paltry amount for one of Europe's supposedly top teams - and any hopes that the Spaniard can get the best out of floundering Fernando Torres already seem to be fading.
Without a goal in 648 minutes, Torres continues to look like a shadow of the player that shone under Benitez at Liverpool, while the team's attacking midfielders - Oscar, Eden Hazard and Juan Mata - appear to have been burdened with more defensive duties in the new regime.
It means the battle for the title is increasingly looking like a two-team race between the Manchester clubs, with United visiting Reading and second-place Manchester City - a point behind - protecting an unbeaten start at home to Everton.
"It's a big moment for us," said United manager Alex Ferguson, whose team beat West Ham 1-0 on Wednesday. "With no international football and our last (Champions League) group game next Wednesday, it gives us a further chance to concentrate on the league.
"With Chelsea drawing, it draws us away from them a little bit further. It will be a long season."
Also Saturday, fifth-place Tottenham looks for a third straight win when it visits Fulham in another London rivalry and West Bromwich Albion will look to bounce back from a 3-1 loss at Swansea and stay in the Champions League positions by beating Stoke at home.
Arsenal hosts Swansea and last-place Queens Park Rangers goes in search of an elusive first win of the season in a home match against Aston Villa.
It is Benitez's troubled start to life at Chelsea that is dominating the headlines, however.
A first match away from Stamford Bridge is unlikely to give him much respite, with promoted West Ham proving a robust unit under manager Sam Allardyce and looking comfortable in mid-table.
Benitez sounded like predecessors Carlo Ancelotti, Andre Villas-Boas and
Di Matteo when asked to sum up Torres' current plight.
"It's a question of confidence," he said. "He's not scoring goals, so it's confidence. But it's not easy when you are playing against lots of defenders."
Mata's likely return to the starting lineup, after being on the bench against Fulham, should help Torres' cause as he looks for a first goal since October 6.
"We have to keep going," Benitez said. "We'll have chances."