Chelsea FC, champions of Europe and winners of the FA Cup. Has quite a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? The Blues haven’t had the best of pre-seasons, having lost games in such rapid succession that there are dominoes out there blushing. Fortunate to start off against Wigan Athletic and Reading, the Blues will be glad that Ivanovic can play their first opponents, because the FA Community Shield is effectively a pre-season friendly thanks to a recent change in rules. That’s a news as good as any to start this season.
Squad Analysis: How competent is the Chelsea first-team roster?
Players IN: Eden Hazard (Lille), Oscar (Internacional), Marko Marin (Werder Bremen)
Players OUT: Didier Drogba (Shanghai Shenhua), Salomon Kalou (Lille), Jose Bosingwa, Thibaut Courtois (Atletico Madrid) Loan, Kevin de Bruyne (Werder Bremen) Loan, Tomas Kalas (Vitesse Arnhem) Loan, Romelu Lukaku (West Brom) Loan, Patrick van Aanholt (Vitesse Arnhem) Loan.
Chelsea are well covered in this department, with Cech expected to continue from where he spectacularly left off last season. In lesser games or in case of injury, Hilario or Turnbull will fill in for the Czech international. The reserve keepers don’t inspire much confidence because of their inconsistency, but Chelsea don’t really have an option here. The heir to Petr Cech’s throne has already been identified and he is unbelievably good even at a young age of 19. Thibout Courtois, on loan at Atletico Madrid, is one hell of a talent. In his debut season on loan, he kept 23 clean-sheets in all competitions, playing a crucial role in Atletico’s Europa league triumph. Chelsea had an option to recall him to Stamford Bridge this season, but they resisted the temptation to do the right thing; he needs first team football. In an year or two, he should be ready to challenge Cech for a starting role for Chelsea. Until then, it’s Petr who’d guard the posts for the European Champions, with Hilario and Turnbull being his understudy.
In a perfect world, you can sleep peacefully knowing the team relies on a central defensive line-up consisting of John Terry, David Luiz, Gary Cahill and Branislav Ivanovic. A perfect world, this certainly is not.
Terry, in all likelihood, will miss a month or two because of an impending FA ban for the Anton Ferdinand fiasco, while Ivanovic is also the first choice right back in the starting line-up. Chelsea had a choice between a new backup centre-back or a right-back – and, they have decided on a fullback, with reinforcement due to arrive sooner rather than later. As far as designated cover at centre-back is concerned, Romeu, Huchinson, and Chalobah can fill in for a few minutes, if needed.
So, if Terry is banned and either Luiz or Cahill gets injured, Ivanovic will start in the centre, while the new full-back can join in on the right. Sufficient cover, you might be tempted to say.
With age catching up, Ashley Cole is no longer the undisputed best left-back in the world, but on his day and with a hard-working winger in front of him, he can still give the best in the world, a run for their money. He has served the club well, and with sufficient rest, can still continue to do so for a season or two. That rest is guaranteed by Ryan Bertrand, who, after patiently waiting for his time, is ready to take over from Cole.
That di Matteo has faith in the young left-back was clear when the manager didn’t bat an eyelid before giving Bertrand a European debut in the Champions League final by playing him out of position. This position is well covered and no additions required at this position – not now, not in the near future, with Patrick van Aanholt also waiting in the wings, away on loan.
An area of concern for the Blues in the last decade or so, this position is far from sorted out. Although Ivanovic should start in all big games, being better than all available players on the market, an emergency in the centre of defence may see him vacate the right-back position.
It is for such times that Chelsea are close to signing Marseille’s Cesar Azplicueta. Once the 23-year old Spaniard is here, there would be sufficient cover, with Ferreira and Hutchinson also capable enough at providing a short-term fix.
Whether di Matteo fields a two-man midfield, or a midfield triangle, inverted or otherwise, there will always be a defensive midfielder in the Chelsea starting line-up in any major game. Today, John Obi Mikel is that player. And, his like-for-like cover is Oriol Romeu. While there were flashes of Romeu’s potential on display last season, the jury is still out on him, because of his limited playing time.
Few Chelsea players have polarized the opinion of Chelsea fans as Mikel has. While there are many who detest him, citing his slow movement in midfield, sideways passing, there are a few who understand the value he brings to the table. His composure in midfield, ability to retain possession under pressure and passing accuracy, was one of the reason behind Chelsea’s stellar show under di Matteo last season. There’s still scope for improvement in his concentration levels, but considerable progress has been made in this regard as well.
An injury to him will, however, bring Essien, Ramires and Meireles into the spotlight. They can be a part of the double pivot in midfield, but as a solitary central defensive midfielder in the inverted triangle, they are unlikely to have the same impact. No new additions are expected at this position; di Matteo will rather play only a pivot in midfield, in case of an injury to Mikel.
Chelsea have Frank Lampard, Michael Essien, Raul Meireles, Ramires, Josh McEachran, and even Oscar as players who can form a part of the double pivot or play the role of one of the advanced midfielders in a 4-3-3 formation. The first choice here would of course be Lampard, but the signing of Oscar might call into question any assumptions. In addition to playing further forward, the Brazilian has enough technical quality in him to feature in a deep midfield role.
No further signings are expected here as well. If Frank continues from where he left off last season, if Oscar develops as he’s expected to, and if Essien, Meireles and Ramires step in to do the job adequately whenever called upon, this position won’t warrant a second glance. Either way, the manager will change the shape of midfield to maximize the impact of the available players, but any further additions are unlikely at the moment.
Chelsea had only Juan Mata last season. Chelsea have Juan Mata, Eden Hazard, and Oscar now. If there’s any position at Chelsea that might qualify as an embarrassment of riches, it’s the position of the central attacking midfielder. Each of the three players is a phenomenal talent in his own right and the club, which didn’t have even one such player even two years ago, has its hands full. Enough talent to break open even the most stubborn of defences.
Mata, Hazard, Ramires, Marin, Sturridge, Malouda, Benayoun (presuming they aren’t sold), and even Piazon can play out wide in the third band of attack in 4-2-3-1 or as wide forwards in 4-3-3, with the first four names being the most likely options for the manager.
For long Chelsea have been linked to a player capable of playing a versatile role of a wide forward and a support striker, such as Victor Moses, Andre Schurrle, Hulk, etc. They appear closest to signing the Wigan forward and if signed, he would certainly add to the options available at the disposal of di Matteo.
At most, one signing would be made in this department.
This appears to be a weak area for Chelsea, with the departure of club legend Didier Drogba. Although Fernando Torres is apparently being trusted as the first-choice centre forward and Daniel Sturridge may finally get to live his dream of playing through the centre, Chelsea must be very careful here. If Torres doesn’t deliver yet again and if Sturridge gets too overawed by the occasion, it can land the West London club in trouble. Any club challenging for top honors in Europe has at least three world class centre forwards. With the signing of van Persie, United have five at the moment. While, City already have at least 4 players capable of leading the line on their own.
Recently, there have been rumors of Chelsea looking to bring Edinson Cavani to Stamford Bridge, a story that doesn’t seem out of place at all. Chelsea are expected to sign at least one attacker – either a versatile player in the mold of Moses or Hulk or a out-and-out striker such as Cavani.
If the European champions do manage to eventually sign a right-back and a forward, they’d have a good enough squad to challenge for top honors this season. Even if they fail here, the team may still prove to be a formidable foe for the competition.
Predictions: So what does this season hold for the Blues?
Season Crests and Troughs – Well for starters, don’t expect this season to go any different from others in the past. Chelsea will likely start strong, racking up the points and tussling with Manchester United and Manchester City for the view at the top. Likely to be tested only by Newcastle, Chelsea have a solid opportunity to barnstorm their way to 15 points before travelling to an unpredictable Arsenal. Can it be done? There are few initial fixture lists out there that might be more generous. The Blues will likely lose focus around Christmas, as they always do. But as long as they don’t hemorrhage points like they did in the past two seasons, their typical late flourish should see them fight for a place at the top.
Most Likely To Wish He’d Left – No prizes for guessing, that Florent Malouda is the one likely to find himself frozen out of an awkwardly crowded midfield. Michael Essien is also someone who’s clearly past his prime and is happy drawing a salary at Chelsea, rather than moving on. What’s more disappointing is that the will to regain any semblance of their past stature is conspicuous by its absence and is a clear indication that Chelsea would do well to offload them, one way for the other. However, if the club fails, Malouda, who priced himself out a move to Santos, and Essien are likely to find themselves warming the benches for a long time. But it’s the former whose contributions last season bordered on the abysmal, who is really scraping the bottom of the barrel.
Standout Player For The Season – Forget the Oscars, Hazards and Marins for a while – and take a closer look. You’ll see a familiar general pulling away at the strings in midfield. This is still Super Frankie’s territory. And in a side where his style is increasingly being seen as a thing of the past, you can expect the Chelsea vice captain to once again remind everyone just why he’s so integral to the squad.
Attacker To Watch Out For – Sure Fernando Torres’ star seems to be on the rise again, and he might just prove everyone wrong with a 30 goal season. But the attacking gem to watch out for, is a player who dazzled us in his first season. Juan Mata was impeccable, throughout, oftentimes single-handedly being the sole spark of imagination in a bland hammer-and-tongs side. Mata was supposed to struggle in a physical league, but he took any punishment dished out to him on his chin. Mata was courageous without being flamboyant, and quirky without being cheeky. Hazard and Oscar are likely to be burdened by the huge weight of expectations at being the twin cruxes of an impending overhaul of Chelsea’s style of playing. Being the standard bearers of a Blue Barcelona cannot be easy, in a foreign land with an alien style of play. Mata on the other hand, blessed at having come in with lower expectations, has already been there and done that.
Trouble With The Crowds – Hazard certainly rubbed quite a few the wrong way by flirting with every English club interested in him, before signing up for Chelsea. Ashley Cole will still get booed by Gooners, and you might want to add United’s fans to it – after the much publicized Twitter bust-up with Rio Ferdinand. But as Petr Cech made so abundantly clear, he expects John Terry to get a shellacking the kind we haven’t seen before. Innocent until proven guilty isn’t a maxim that holds much water on the football field. Expect Terry to take the chants and abuse in his stride and use it to drive himself more. Although he did uncharacteristically fumble in a 3-5 loss to Arsenal last season when he was in the headlines for other notorious reasons. How much can one man take? We’ll soon find out. If his past is anything to go by, Terry will turn in a season we can all be proud of.
Success and Silverware – Chelsea are not likely to win the Premier League this season. That’s quite the depressing thought for fans, but a natural assumption to make in the circumstances. Chelsea are no longer desperate for silverware, having won the biggest prize there is. The Blues will instead settle for second spot just behind Manchester City, and narrowly beating United into third. The Blues will also fall victim to the law of averages and fail to defend the Champions League title, with Real Madrid under Jose Mourinho achieving what they set out for. Chelsea will however win either the FA Cup or the Carling Cup, do well in the Club World Cup and the Super Cup, and end the season on a relatively strong note. They could very well see themselves become favorites for the 2013-14 season. That’s quite a stretch, even as predictions go, but the Blues are in a phase of transition and should be happy with any silverware they lay their hands on.
Job Security – Will Roberto di Matteo keep his job, come season end? Di Matteo just might. While a triumph in the Premier League or the Champions League will easily cement his position for the remainder of his contract, an FA Cup victory might also do just enough to keep him from falling off the boat. Perhaps Abramovich really has a heart of gold, and might forgive di Matteo even if the Blues go the whole of the next season without any trophies. And if you believe that, we have a bridge to sell you.
– Karan Yadav and Sanish Fernandez