Chelsea: With a capital ‘C’.
Having won back-to-back titles, Jose Mourinho could be forgiven for thinking that the summer was going to be plain sailing. However transfer activity was frenetic and often bitter with Ashley Cole completing his transfer from bitter rivals Arsenal while William Gallas criticised his old club as he moved the opposite way. The signings of Andriy Shevchenko and Michael Ballack showed that Chelsea were aiming for even better things the following season, with one eye particularly focused on winning the elusive Champion’s League. While the likes of Duff, del Horno, Gudjohnsen and Crespo all left Stamford Bridge, replacements arrived in Kalou, Mikel and Boulahrouz and Chelsea started the season as most peoples favourites in their bid to make it three Premiership Titles in a row.
Many people expected Liverpool to be Chelsea’s nearest rivals for the league and Liverpool drew first blood with a 2-1 victory over Chelsea in the Charity Shield. While Shevchenko scored his first goal and Mourinho played down the importance of the defeat, Middlesbrough’s shock 2-1 win over the Blues in the league, just ten days later, showed that Chelsea were struggling to find their form in the opening to their campaign.
However, an astonishing run of fourteen wins from seventeen games including a crucial early win over Liverpool in the league and a win over rivals Barcelona in the Champions League, showed Chelsea were well on course to compete for the coveted league and European Cup double. One crucial blow occurred however when Petr Cech sustained a serious injury from Stephen Hunt’s challenge in the win over Reading in early October. Cech wouldn’t play again for three months and Chelsea’s injury problems weren’t over yet. While rivals Arsenal and Liverpool struggled with their early season form, Man Utd started impressively and as the teams drew 1-1 at the end of November it became clear who Chelsea’s biggest rivals were domestically. That draw came at a cost though when it was confirmed after the game that Joe Cole, who had only recently returned to fitness, would not play again for at least three months after breaking his foot.
As the Christmas period arrived, there were just three points between Chelsea and Alex Ferguson’s men and a stunning late goal from Michael Essien secured a valuable point with Arsenal which kept the Gunners at arms length and meant Chelsea could focus on overhauling Man Utd. However, three successive draws over Christmas to Reading, Fulham and Aston Villa and defeat to Liverpool less than three weeks later handed Ronaldo and co. a significant boost in their hopes at wrestling back the title from Chelsea’s grasp.
While Jose Mourinho continued to court controversy, with apologies sought from Steve Coppell for his remarks about Stephen Hunt, David Moyes for his comments about Andrew Johnson and just about every other manager or referee in the Premiership for one thing or another. Domestically catching Utd was proving difficult, but Chelsea continued to cruise in the cup competitions and when the Champions league returned they secured a hard-fought win over Porto after being behind in both legs of the first knockout stage.
The Carling Cup Final saw Chelsea secure the first piece of silverware of the year, a 2-1 win over Arsenal marred by three red cards and a nasty-looking injury to John Terry when Abou Diaby tried to volley the ball and ended up nearly taking the Chelsea captain’s head off. Chelsea recovered from a terrific opening spell from Arsenal to deflate their opponents through tenacity and sheer will, and as Arsenal sat dejected the first trophy of the season fell right into Jose Mourinho’s lap.
A 0-0 draw away at Newcastle in late April was in many ways the major chance for Chelsea to seize the initiative in the league after Man Utd could only draw with Middlesbrough the day before. However Chelsea were extremely poor that day and were fortunate to even come away with a point. With the first leg of their Champions League semi-final with Liverpool to come on the Wednesday, critics argued that Chelsea were focusing on winning in Europe rather than domestically. A 1-0 win over Liverpool at Stamford Bridge seemed to prove that point as Chelsea were far better than their perfomance at Newcastle days earlier and many predicted a final date with rivals Man Utd in both the FA Cup and Champions League as well as the title race going down to the wire between the two.
That wasn’t to be however, a 2-2 draw at home to Bolton on the Saturday, coupled with Utd’s remarkable comeback from 2-0 down to Everton to win 4-2 meant Chelsea’s title race was hanging by a thread. A 1-0 defeat to Liverpool and overall defeat on penalties meant another heartbreaking exit from Europe for Chelsea and with internal wranglings and the suggestion of a cold relationship between Mourinho and Roman Abramovich, suddenly things were not looking so good at Stamford Bridge. Talk of an unprecedented quadruple washed away to the FA Cup Final being seen as ‘saving’ their season.
With the Champion’s League proving too far for Chelsea again, rumours of Jose Mourinho’s future being uncertain continued to grow and when Chelsea drew with Arsenal for the second time in the league, the title was on its way back to Old Trafford with Chelsea facing the prospect of just the Carling Cup to show for their efforts. However the hero of Chelsea’s season Didier Drogba scored a 116th minute goal to settle a dour game at the new Wembley, securing the Cup double for Chelsea and in doing so, regaining a small bit of pride over rivals Utd.
(1): Jose Mourinho. Like him or love him, it really doesn’t matter, he has turned his squad into a close-knit bunch and despite the injuries and internal squabblings of last season, Chelsea were not far from winning everything on offer. Mourinho has a knack of getting under the skin of those rivals closest to him, Rafa Benitez can barely muster the strength to speak to the man while Wenger and Ferguson have both openly criticised him on regular occassions and yet neither Arsenal or United managed to beat Mourinho’s Chelsea last season. Barcelona, Porto and Valencia were despatched of in the Champion’s League. Liverpool beat Chelsea twice and yet were left far behind in the league. Mourinho not only wins the big games, but knows how to beat those closest to him off the pitch as well. Whether you believe in ‘mind games’ or not, be certain that all four managers are affected by them to different levels.
(2): Petr Cech, John Terry, Ricardo Carvalho, Michael Essien, Frank Lampard, Joe Cole, Didier Drogba……Mourinho has at his disposal a first team consisting not only of excellent players, but players who want to win for him as well as themselves. The spirit of the group is often referred to and maybe over emphasised but cannot be denied. Chelsea will be a force whenever the nucleus of this team takes to the pitch.
(c): Didier Drogba. What a season. From being booed by his own fans to racking up goals galore, some of extraordinary quality, Drogba was a true revelation this season. While Michael Essien and Ricardo Carvalho may have been close, Drogba could not be denied the accolade of Chelsea’s player of the season. After coming so close to leaving last summer, Drogba stayed and made the legendary Andriy Shevchenko feel the need to question his future at the club as he sat (on the bench) in Drogba’s shadow…
(1): Jose Mourinho. His relationship with Roman Abramovich will be of concern to Chelsea fans. If Abramovich won’t back him in the transfer market while the Glazers rack up huge bills signing the world’s biggest talents, Chelsea will struggle to compete on all fronts. While Mourinho stuck up his fingers to show the number of trophies he’s won in three years at Wembley, it seemed an act of defiance rather than pride or arrogance, and for Mourinho to continue in his job, he’ll need to come to some sort of agreement with the people backing him so that he can continue in his position without looking over his shoulder if results don’t go Chelsea’s way.
(2): Ballack. (Shevchenko?). Neither player made the impact that they should have on Chelsea’s season last year. Neither player can claim with any great conviction that they added something to the team. Speculation over whether Shevchenko was Abramovich’s signing continues, regardless of who sought his transfer though, Shevchenko needs to commit his future to Chelsea and needs to realise that he is no longer the ‘darling’ of his club. One season into his contract, Shevchenko is a source of mistrust rather than adoration amongst the Chelsea faithful. He can become a top Premiership striker however, but Shevchenko needs to learn new tricks and adjust his game to suit the Premiership. Ballack is a different story. Ballack’s play often resembled someone who simply didn’t care. While Mourinho stuck by the German, possibly as he knows he takes the flack for his own signings (Ballack) but possibly not the chairman’s (Shevchenko), reports indicated his fellow midfielders were unhappy with his constant presence on the teamsheet regardless of performance or attitude. Ballack’s operation at the end of the season infuriated Chelsea, who were not aware of the surgery taking place initially, and Ballack will have done little to endear himself to his teammates in putting club before country with an FA Cup Final looming. For the time being it seems both players are staying, but a huge effort is required from both if their stays in England are to be considered successful.
Firstly, Steve Sidwell and Claudio Pizarro have signed on free transfers already. Both are excellent additions to the squad though it remains to be seen whether they can force their way into the first team. It seems money will not be freely available to Mourinho, as it has been for the past two summers, but this will not stop Chelsea being linked with the cream of the crop around Europe.
(1): Wingers. Chelsea’s lack of width was evident last season. With Robben and Cole back to full fitness this will help to alleviate the problem, but with Liverpool stalling on Lyon’s Florent Malouda, Chelsea may try and nip in for the tricky winger. Other options include Daniel Alves of Sevilla, an attacking right back who may fit the bill as that area has proved a problem for Mourinho recently with neither Ferreira nor Geremi oozing confidence in the role.
(2): A central defender is also of paramount importance to Chelsea after Terry’s injury-hit season showed them that serious back up is needed despite Carvalho’s excellent season. Ferreira and Essien regularly filled-in, neither looked too assured, and when Mourinho suggested Drogba may be used, it re-emphasised the need to sign defensive cover with Boulahrouz surplus to requirements. Chelsea appear unlikely to take up their option on Alex of PSV whom they technically own, so where they are looking remains a puzzle. Alex has shown great potential but seems unwanted, Tal Ben Haim looks set to join Newcastle, any bid for Micah Richards would have to be a huge one to convince Man City to sell. Other options could include Lillian Thuram, rumoured to be unhappy at Barcelona and an experienced pro who would not command a big fee, Gabriel Milito of Zaragoza who has been watched by several top teams this term and Curtis Davies of West Brom who will surely make the step up to the Premiership and would be happier than most to learn his trade under John Terry without complaining at being left on the bench?
More of the same. Chelsea will no doubt be there or there-abouts in all four major competitions next season. While the likes of Johnson, Makelele, Bouhlarouz and Cudicini could move on, the two signings so far have been good value and with a small transfer kitty, Chelsea will be a very strong squad going into next season. The likes of Mikel and Kalou will have a year of the Premiership under their belt and if Chelsea can avoid the injury problems of last year, they will be hard to beat in the Premiership. In Europe, Chelsea will feel like last year was a terrific chance to go all the way, starting right at the start again will be tough, but not daunting, however their style of football will suit playing Fulham on a cold Saturday in London, whether Madrid or Inter will prove as accommodating is another question…..