Champions Chelsea FC kick off the 2015-2016 season on Saturday, aiming to improve their performances in the Champions League as well as England’s premier cup competition, whilst hoping to become the first team since 2009 to retain the Premier League title
Although the Blues suffered a narrow defeat in the FA Community Shield at the hands of city rivals Arsenal FC – having failed to win any of their previous pre-season games in ninety minutes – José Mourinho’s men have progressively improved over the course of the past three weeks, and will have shaken off most of the rust ahead of their first Premier League game against Swansea on Saturday.
Whilst their main title rivals have been in a state of flux in terms of their first-team squads since the end of last season, Chelsea FC have retained every key player and replaced the departing legends Didier Drogba and Petr Čech with like-for-like replacements in Colombian Radamel Falcao and Bosnia & Herzegovina international Asmir Begović respectively.
Given the departure of Filipe Luís to Atlético Madrid, the Blues are expected to sign a left-back in the near future, with Augsburg youngster Abdul Baba Rahman heavily linked with a Stamford Bridge switch. The pursuit of Everton centre-half John Stones is also set to continue – Mourinho evidently unfazed by Everton’s public protestations.
There have been surprises in terms of returning loanees: Victor Moses and teenager Bertrand Traoré returned to the Chelsea FC first-team squad over the summer and are expected to stay there for the season, with Mourinho confirming as much following the friendly defeat to the New York Red Bulls last month in New Jersey.
All in all, José Mourinho will begin the defence of his Premier League crown with largely the same team from last season, and with his rivals far outspending him – something of an anomaly in his managerial career spanning little over a decade. Ahead of what promises to be one of the most exciting seasons of European football yet, here are five things Blues fans can expect in 2015-2016:
1. Rémy and Falcao likely to see a lot of game time
Chelsea FC fans in Washington D.C. bore witness to worryingly familiar scenes last month when the Blues’ star striker Diego Costa limped off with a hamstring issue in his side’s penalty shoot-out victory against European champions Barcelona. The Brazilian-born Spaniard has been plagued with problems pertaining to his hamstrings since his Atlético Madrid days, and the unfortunate reality seems to be that the injury will recur next season.
The insidious nature of the problem means that while it seems probable that the injury will rear its head at some point, it is difficult to tell exactly when. As such, the rest of the Chelsea FC strike-force comprising France international Loïc Rémy and Colombian Radamel Falcao will have to be ready at all times. When fit, Costa is likely to be protected not just in domestic cup games, but also in the ‘inconsequential’ Champions League group stages fixtures. Consequently, both Rémy and Falcao will see a lot of time on the pitch for Chelsea FC next season.
However, Mourinho has also dropped several hints in pre-season about the possibility of playing with two strikers up front. New signing Radamel Falcao is more of a pure striker than Costa or Rémy, and is arguably better in the penalty area than his team-mates. Particularly against teams that sit back and defend deep, his predatory instincts as well as his intelligence of movement in the box can make the difference for Chelsea FC.
His playing style could thus complement that of Rémy and particularly Diego Costa, meaning Mourinho will almost certainly play with two up front, if only when chasing a goal. Speaking after the victory against Barcelona in Washington last month, the Chelsea FC boss said: “We can play with two. Falcao came on and suddenly the team was direct and objective.
“They closed the lines and played in the opposition half. Falcao held the ball up very well. I’m very happy with his first week. I like him a lot as a player. The team play very well with a striker of his quality.”
With Diego Costa a major doubt for the Blues’ first game against Swansea, it is likely that both Falcao and Rémy will feature on the opening day, which could well set the tone for the rest of the season.
2. Victor Moses could prove a useful impact substitute
Despite having a solid season on loan at Stoke City last term, few expected the Nigerian international to be involved with the Chelsea FC first team in 2015-2016. It appears that will be the case, however, with Moses arguably one of the most impressive players for the Blues during pre-season in North America.
The 24-year-old has, according to his manager, shown ‘an evolution‘ over the past couple of seasons, and his directness could come in handy over the course of the Blues’ season. Moses is strong, quick, direct and seemingly able to meet Mourinho’s exacting standards in terms of defensive contribution – making him the ideal impact substitute for Chelsea FC next season.
Although he will have to compete for a place in the match-day squad with the likes of Juan Cuadrado and Bertrand Traoré, his experience playing on the left flank for Stoke City could be an advantage considering there is no real back-up for Belgian wizard Eden Hazard in that particular position.
If the former Wigan Athletic man – who also qualifies as a home-grown player – can survive any last-minute cuts Mourinho might make to his squad before the close of the transfer window, he could contribute to any successes Chelsea FC might have next season.
3. Beginning of the end of the Cahill-Terry partnership
For several fairly plausible reasons, the 2015-2016 season could see the beginning of the end of the Gary Cahill-John Terry partnership. For one, it would be something of a miracle if the Chelsea FC captain stayed match-fit throughout the season and performed at the same consistently high level as he did in the 2014-2015 campaign.
The 34-year-old has not had the most convincing of pre-seasons, and although he is likely to find his feet again sooner rather than later, dips in form and chances of potential injury are likely to increase as he inches towards the end of his magnificent career. Secondly, even if the veteran were to stay fit, Gary Cahill is likely to face increased competition for his spot in the team from French youngster Kurt Zouma.
The England international was dropped for several key Chelsea FC fixtures last season in favour of Zouma, and it seems likely that the constantly improving 20-year-old will see more time on the pitch next season if – as is reasonably likely – Cahill were to show any signs of decline.
Thirdly – and perhaps most saliently – the potential signing of John Stones is likely to cause a major shake-up in the Blues’ defence. Given the 21-year-old will cost upwards of £30 million, Mourinho will want to give him the opportunities to prove he is worth the outlay, and it could be that he partners John Terry in the Portuguese’s preferred starting XI.
As such, although the Cahill-Terry tandem has really not been in place for much longer than two full seasons, it is unlikely to last beyond the next, if in fact it survives over the course of the coming season.
4. Willian will be a key player for the Blues
The Brazilian international was amongst his country’s best players in the summer’s Copa América tournament in Chile, and has returned showing no side-effects from having a reduced holiday period. It was Willian who arguably took the game to Arsenal in the Community Shield – particularly in the first half – and the fact that he started the game ahead of Oscar is perhaps revealing.
Although the 26-year-old divides fan opinion given the occasional poor choices he makes whilst attacking, or indeed his inability to be creative in attack, he has grown to become an inextricable part of Mourinho’s first-choice line-up, and will continue to be so on the evidence of the second half of last season.
Like Hazard, Willian has the strength and burst of acceleration to disrupt defensive set-ups by dribbling past opposition, thus opening up the field and creating space for his team-mates. The Brazilian finds himself in great positions time and again, and now needs to improve on his end product.
The former Shakhtar winger’s defensive contribution and work-rate is well documented, but it is his contributions in attack that could prove decisive next season as he continues to develop under Mourinho’s tutelage. Regardless of the style of football Chelsea FC choose to play, Willian has the attributes to excel, making him one of the team’s most important players.
The Brazil international will once again be vital as the Blues look to defend their Premier League crown next season.
5. Academy players unlikely to see much game time
Although this is unlikely to come as a surprise for any Chelsea FC fans, there appears to be little hope of an academy player establishing himself in the first team next season. England U21 international Ruben Loftus-Cheek started Premier League games after the Blues had sealed the title last season, but a lack of pre-season minutes does not bode well for the youngster.
Mourinho commented on his progression during the North America tour, saying: “I want to keep him because he needs to improve a lot. I think the best way for him to improve is to work with us every day even if he doesn’t play much. In this moment, he is far from being in a condition to play for us.”
Chelsea FC academy defenders Ola Aina and Jake Clarke-Salter have seemingly been promoted to the first-team squad and were also part of the pre-season tour, but Clarke-Salter did not see any minutes on the pitch whilst Aina was hauled off after little over twenty against the Red Bulls.
Clarke-Salter, a centre-back, has just had one full season at U21 level and is understandably not ready to make the step up yet. Aina, on the other hand, is a full-back and has more experience, but given Branislav Ivanović’s position at right-back seems to be sacrosanct, there seems little opportunity for the teenager to get any significant minutes.
A lot of Chelsea’s most promising talent is either out on loan or awaiting a move, including Patrick Bamford, Andreas Christensen, Lewis Baker, Isaiah Brown, Dominic Solanke, Jeremie Boga and Charly Musonda. Consequently, despite the exploits of the academy last season – winning the FA Youth Cup for the second year in a row as well as lifting the UEFA Youth League crown – Blues fans will have to wait before they can watch their prodigiously talented academy players strutting their stuff for the first team.
José Mourinho faces one of his biggest managerial challenges to date as he attempts to become the first manager since Sir Alex Ferguson in 2009 to successfully defend his Premier League title. However, with the spine of the Chelsea FC first team intact and hungry for more, the Blues’ faithful will be hoping to have an even better season this time around.