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Chelsea Have Grounds For Optimism



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Chelsea have had a summer almost as extraordinary as their amazing Champions League triumph in May. It’s been an extraordinary summer because they have spent upwards of £63m, revolutionised their squad, signed two of the hottest young talents in world football yet managed to do this completely under the radar.

If you’ve seen Chelsea in the news it’s been because the phrase ‘Chelsea captain’ has prefixed almost every news story about John Terry being tried in court over claims he racially abused Anton Ferdinand, not because of the radical changes in their squad. Still the JT saga – continuing to rumble on with the FA having charged him, along with Robin Van Persie announcing his wish to hotfoot it from Arsenal, Euro 2012 and now the Olympics has meant Chelsea’s summer transactions have passed almost without scrutiny.

That’s a shame in many ways because Chelsea’s summer signings mean that on paper at least Chelsea have as fresh and exciting a squad as any in the Premier League. Eden Hazard and Oscar are two incredibly talented players with a combined age of 42, Ramires and ‘geezer’ David Luiz last year were two of Chelsea’s best performers on their remarkable run to Champions League success. Gary Cahill performed well after a shaky start while the likes of Lukaku, Courtois and De Bruyne promise much for the future. Roberto Di Matteo now has summer something no other Chelsea manager has – a Champions League winners medal.

Eden Hazard is the star signing of Chelsea’s summer of spending.  Player of the Year the last two seasons in France, coveted by the big clubs of Europe and worth £32m he is undoubtedly a huge talent. However he will be under pressure when the season starts. The English footballing public are suspicious of young skilful players with the air of cockiness, and also of highly rated foreigners. Nothing appears to give the Match of the Day crew more joy than a talented young player being harassed, hounded and kicked out of matches.

Hazard going to Twitter to announce the club he was moving to, shades of LeBron James in basketball wasn’t a good start. It made him come across as cocksure and egotistical. If he doesn’t start well, pundits will write him off, say he’s a failure while internet jokers will liken him Stewart Downing and Andy Carroll at Liverpool. This will of course be ludicrous but ludicrous (or ludicrously bad) is the right word to describe the state of football punditry in England. If he doesn’t start well, pressure will build on his young shoulders

But there’s a reason there’s big expectations on him. He’s talented, he’s good and he’s exactly the sort of player Chelsea were looking for – young, skilful, talented and an attacking talent. Roman Abramovich’s long held wish for Chelsea to be an expressive, aesthetically pleasing side is shown by the signing of Oscar for £25m.

Oscar is one of the coming men of Brazilian football. Playing for Internacional last season he had 13 assists and 13 goals in 44 starts. So far at the Olympics every Brazilian goal has been scored or assisted by Oscar or the outrageously gifted and mohawked Neymar. He will provide goals, creativity and the ability to slip the ball behind the defence for the likes of Torres or Sturridge to score.

Chelsea’s squad overall is looking in rude health, with a talented squad, an average age drastically reduced by the departures of Jose Bosingwa, Saloman Kalou and the magnificent Didier Drogba. Combine this with the confidence seeping through after their Champions League success and they could be on to something.

In goal Petr Cech is consistently excellent, last season returning to the form he showed before his head injury at the hands (or the knee) of Stephen Hunt after two or three seasons of fallibility and inconsistency. The defence in the hands of Luiz, Cahill and Ivanovic looks good for the future while the besieged Terry is for Chelsea a solid performer, while Ashley Cole shows an intelligence and dependability on the pitch he most definitely doesn’t show on Twitter. Ryan Bertrand and Sam Hutchinson will add ‘depth’ (i.e hardly play a league game, get picked to play in the early rounds of the domestic cups) to the squad.

The central midfield roles though are overflowing with players eager to be picked. Lampard, Essien, Meireles, Ramires, Romeu, Mikel and even Josh McEachran are fighting for two central spots in the midfield.

Ramires was the best of this group last season, Mikel improved though still is to live up to the hype created by his never ending transfer saga, Romeu regressed when Andre Villas-Boas was sacked, McEachran got scarcely more playing time on loan at Swansea than he did at Chelsea, Essien showed his age while Meireles and Lampard were solid without being astounding.

Di Matteo has a hell of a job to not only find a good combination but massage the egos of these highly strung players being paid huge amounts of money to sit on seats inside glass conservatories beside pitches, roam the tacky nightclubs of Southern England, take up space in newspapers and websites transfer gossip columns and tweet nothing of interest in barely comprehensible text talk to thousands of followers.

Similar to the central midfield berths, Chelsea are chock full of attacking midfielders. Marko Marin signed from Werder Bremen is another talented attacking player, though not as injury-proof, young or good as Hazard or Oscar. He has shown glimpses of greatness in the Bundesliga along with large periods spent recovering from injury and giving the club physio a bonus.

With Juan Mata already at the club along with the aforementioned new signings there is a surplus of attacking midfielders. Hazard, Oscar and Mata’s all prefer to play in the no.10 role behind the striker, and with Marin, Sturridge, Malouda and even Ramires capable of playing out wide it will be fascinating to see how Di Matteo takes these talented yet ill-fitting ingredients as he tries to create and nurture a title winning blend.

Hazard has played out wide with success for Lille but was at his best behind the striker. Mata played out wide a lot last season but plainly wasn’t at his best out there. Malouda apart from a short period when he was resurrected by Guus Hiddink has flattered to deceive at Chelsea, Sturridge regressed after the departure of Villas-Boas and isn’t a natural left winger while Marin isn’t expected to start regularly. Oscar is very talented but Brazilians tend to struggle in England and due to the Olympics will have no time at all to settle in at Chelsea before the season starts.

Up front things are more straight forward. Drogba will be a huge miss, a genuine club legend having left for the riches of Shanghai Shenhua. Drogba was a talisman on the pitch and psychologically often gave fellow teammates and fans belief they would not have had if he wasn’t there. Fernando Torres won the Golden Boot at Euro 2012 despite hardly playing and has shown glimpses of the all-conquering forward who along with the superb Mascherano-Gerrard-Alonso midfield trio almost took Liverpool to the league title. He will surely be the man leading the line when the season starts.

Chelsea have shown confidence in him by not signing a striker when the likes of Van Persie were available. He has shown world-class ability and with the likes of Hazard, Mata and Oscar pulling the strings he should get excellent service. Whether he has the confidence, the wherewithal and the self-belief required to grab back the form of old remains to be seen.

If he does, he could score a hatful. If he doesn’t, Sturridge should get the opportunity to play in his preferred position as the lone centre forward. Despite shooting and neglecting to pass to teammates far more than fans would like, he’s a player of promise who’s a natural finisher. He has the talent though he needs to mature and polish his all-round game if he’s to be a top class striker. Romelu Lukaku has had a good pre-season and if he doesn’t go out on loan will be another player snapping at Torres’s heels for a spot in the Chelsea starting XI.

On paper, Chelsea are stronger than probably every other Premier League side bar Manchester City. But what they have shown in recent years is the ability to self-destruct. Manager after manager has disappeared in a whirl of cheques, torn up contracts and highly paid managers becoming even better paid unemployed people. The Chelsea dressing room has appeared from the outside to be responsible for most of these changes of manager.

This should be less of a problem for Di Matteo though. Firstly, he’s done something no other Chelsea coach has done in winning the Champions League. Secondly, with Drogba gone, Lampard and Cole aging and John Terry’s powerbase at Chelsea surely eroded after years of tawdry tabloid headlines, the notoriously prickly cabal of players at Chelsea should have lost some of its bite. A younger, more malleable set of players should be more to Di Matteo’s liking.

Chelsea have talent. Unlike in previous years, the talent is young and blossoming as opposed to old and wilting. Also after a dismal 6th place finish in the League last year the determination should be there for another tilt at the title. Man City will be favourites but with United aging in defence and still lacking in central midfield, Arsenal in the midst of losing Van Persie, Liverpool re-building and Tottenham and Newcastle promising but unlikely to challenge for anything beyond 4th place, there is space for Chelsea to slot into 2nd place, if not challenge City at the top.

Pre-season form has been poor though, and Chelsea will need to integrate their players very well. Back-up is short in defence, Mikel, Essien and Romeu will need to improve to give Chelsea the top class defensive midfielder that’s essential in the modern game while their attacking midfielders will need to combine well and sort out what position and what role each of them is expected to fulfil.

Torres up front could be the deciding factor – on form, Chelsea could be irresistible. If he continues to be devoid of form and confidence, Chelsea’s hopes could sink with him.