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International Break Blues

Will Chelsea’s momentum stop after the latest international hiatus?

The International Break is a necessary evil I suppose.  It’s fun sometimes, particularly during World Cup Qualifying.  Well, if your team wins that is.  I love supporting the USMNT (I always want to read that as U.S. Mutant Ninja Turtles), but it kills momentum for clubs.  It’s like tennis matches that get rain delayed overnight – it gives the guy who’s losing the match opportunity to regroup, rest, and heal if necessary.  Sometimes it totally changes the match.  And that’s what I’m afraid of because Chelsea has been on a roll, but now the international break – the IB if you will – has stopped the Blues in their tracks.

Compared to the past two seasons, this campaign is strange for Chelsea fans in that the team is sitting relatively pretty for a change, atop the league table, four points above the Manchesters.  So far we haven’t had to deal with the kind of angst that plagued us the past two seasons.  Yes, it’s hard to justify complaints when your team won the Champions League last season, but as anyone who followed that saga knows, it was the most stressful possible tournament in which Chelsea repeatedly cheated death, somehow escaping Munich with the big-eared trophy in their clutches.  By comparison this Premier League season has been downright docile.  So far at least.  That’s the main reason I’m concerned about this most recent momentum-killing IB.

I’ve really enjoyed watching Chelsea go undefeated this season – it’s been refreshingly un-stressful.  But now the team has to shake off their jet lag (Chelsea players are on a lot of national teams) and get their groove back in time to do battle at Tottenham this Saturday.  Add in the weirdness factor that they’ll be facing their old manager Andre Villas-Boas for the first time since Chelsea fired him last season and you have the makings of a potential perfect storm.  You can bet your booty AVB will have his Spurs revved up for maximum pride salvaging (meaning AVB’s pride).  It’s certainly not the cushy assignment a first place team would prefer to get to ease back into Premier League play after a tiring IB.  On the other hand, resuming the season with a dogfight like this may be the best way to get Chelsea back in the full swing of things.

Saturday’s game at Tottenham is a bigger match than initially meets the eye.  It is a crucial encounter that could mean the difference between establishing dominance in the league and giving the Manchesters a toehold.  The Manchesters do not need toeholds given to them.

Will Chelsea be able to regroup and shake off the cobwebs in time for the big clash with Tottenham Saturday?

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American Breathing Room

U.S. keeps World Cup Qualifying hopes alive with win over Guatemala

The first five minutes of tonight’s game were depressing.  The U.S. defense was AWOL and Guatemala scored an easy tap-in goal.  Fortunately, Clint Dempsey had his game face on and scored a pair of first half goals, which, along with Bocanegra’s goal, gave the U.S. a relatively comfy 3-1 lead by halftime.  Speaking of game faces, did anyone notice the hilarious giant placard cutout of Dempsey’s wild-eyed crazy face (that he made in the last game against Jamaica) in the stands?  Good times.

The U.S. shored up their defense in the second half and passed more calmly and efficiently.  They should’ve added a few more goals, but I was just relieved to see them keep Guatemala from climbing their way back into the match.

Jurgen Klinsmann’s Andre-Villas-Boas-like celebrations after each U.S. goal were undoubtedly echoed by U.S. fans around the country.  We can all breathe a sigh of relief for now.  There is a very long way to go of course, but the U.S. bought itself some more time with the win tonight.  Time to regroup, get healthy (Donovan!), and figure out how to play some stingy D before the next round of World Cup Qualifying kicks off in February!

What changes does the U.S. need to make to survive the next round of qualifying?

Shield’s Up!

5 questions facing Chelsea as the new season kicks off with tomorrow’s Community Shield match…

This soccer summer has flown by thanks to the Euros, Chelsea’s U.S. tour, and the Olympics.  Chelsea faces Manchester City tomorrow in the mother of all preseason games – the unofficial start of the new Premier League season – the FA Community Shield.  As a new season dawns, here are 5 questions facing the Blues:

1)  Will Fernando Torres be able to fill the departed Didier Drogba’s shoes? 

Unfortunately for Chelsea fans, the answer is no.  But very few strikers could replicate the heroics Drogba produced during his Chelsea years.  Although we may see some short-term improvement from Torres after his positive output at Euro 2012, he has never quite clicked with Chelsea and I’m not expecting many goals from him in the new season.

Now that 19-year-old Romelu Lukaku has been loaned to West Brom for the season, Chelsea may do some last minute shopping for an additional striker.  Lukaku was a hot signing for Chelsea early last season when he was billed as a potential replacement for Drogba.  Instead, he languished on the bench, making occasional cameo appearances in lower profile matches.  I’m disappointed to see him loaned, but hopefully he’ll get some vital experience at West Brom and return to Chelsea a more polished, confident player.

With Lukaku out of the picture for now, the Blues need Daniel Sturridge to have a breakout season at forward.

2)  Who will make up the core of Chelsea’s midfield?

Chelsea is currently stocked up on midfielders:  Frank Lampard, Jon Obi Mikel, Ramires, Florent Malouda, Michael Essien, Raul Meireles, Eden Hazard, Oriol Romeu, Josh McEachran, Marko Marin, and now Oscar (the Brazilian youngster Chelsea signed a couple weeks ago).

It’s a good problem to have, sorting through so much talent, but it’s a problem nonetheless.  Will we see a regular group of starters, or will there be constant rotation?  If rotation is the answer, will the midfield be able to gel?  Even if the club offloads a few midfielders, there will still be a lot of talent on the bench every week.

A lot could change in the next few weeks.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see Malouda and maybe even Meireles transferred before the season kicks into high gear.

3)  Is the defense deep enough to survive another grueling schedule?

Surprisingly, Chelsea’s summer deal making (and attempted deal making) has focused on midfielders and strikers.  But it was the back line that ran low on options at the critical point of last season due to injuries and suspensions.

John Terry will likely continue anchoring the Chelsea defense, but how long can he hold up?  By his own admission, Terry is starting to feel his age.  Who will fill in when Terry needs extra recovery days?  Barring any last minute summer signings, we’ll likely see a lot more of Ryan Bertrand who played very well when called on at the end of last season.

Assuming Branislav Ivanovic, Ashley Cole, David Luiz, Gary Cahill, and Terry are the regular rotating starters, there aren’t many additional bench options.  Paulo Ferreira may have a little left in the tank, but he’s been at the club since 2004 and has had a very limited role the past two seasons.  Sam Hutchinson’s comeback story is inspiring, but he may not be ready for the rigor of weekly Premier League defending.

Chelsea tried to get Marseille defender Cesar Azpilicueta this week, but Marseille rejected the offer.  Now Di Matteo may be looking at Juventus defender Stephen Lichtsteiner instead.

4)  Which loan players should be retained and who should be loaned this season? 

Josh McEachran was being carefully groomed under Carlo Ancelotti two seasons ago, but Andre Villas Boas ignored McEachran at the beginning of last season.  The 19-year-old went on loan to Swansea for the remainder of the 2011/2012 season where he didn’t see much more playing time.  McEachran has a lot of potential but Chelsea’s midfield is so crowded right now, he’ll likely go on loan for another season.

Yossi Benayoun is a talented player who doesn’t seem to fit in Chelsea’s overall plan.  He spent last season on loan at Arsenal where he did quite well.  Benayoun was on the bench for Chelsea’s preseason loss to Brighton last Saturday, but he didn’t play and it doesn’t seem likely Chelsea will keep him much longer.

Further room on the Chelsea bench might also be made by loaning Kakuta, van Aanholt, and even Oriol Romeu.

5)  Will Roberto Di Matteo make it past Christmas in charge of Chelsea?

When Di Matteo was finally offered a two-year contract earlier this summer after his stint as Chelsea’s interim manager, it seemed only fair.  After all, Di Matteo earned the opportunity by leading the club to the FA Cup and Champions League titles.  The contract offer showed promising (and rare) open-mindedness about manager selection from owner Roman Abramovich.  It will be interesting to see how the new season tests Abramovich’s patience.  Will he be willing to weather the season’s storms with Di Matteo at the helm or will he fire him at the first sign of trouble?

As usual, there are a lot more questions than answers.  One thing’s pretty certain though:  it won’t be a boring season for Chelsea!

What do you think about Chelsea’s prospects this season?

Back in Action

Chelsea takes on Seattle Sounders FC tonight

Chelsea returns to the pitch tonight for a preseason friendly in their first match since winning the Champions League in May.  Although several players will be missing due to post-Euro 2012 vacation and/or impending Olympics duty, it will be fun to see the Blues knocking around the leather again.  It’s also a great opportunity to see some of the club’s youngsters play.

Speaking of youngsters, Oscar the Brazilian Wonder Kid (as I’ve decided to call him for now) supposedly passed his physical with the club, but Di Matteo still won’t confirm or deny any deal.

Florent Malouda will be joining Chelsea in the U.S. in a day or two, but it may be a short visit.  Rumor is he may be headed to a South American team.  I’ve always liked Malouda, but the time is probably right to let him go.  His play has deteriorated since Chelsea’s 2009/10 EPL title-winning season.  He didn’t contribute much with France at the Euros this summer either.  He will be missed, but the club probably needs to free up his roster spot.

Chelsea’s mega-deal of the summer so far has been the signing of Eden Hazard.  Now it sounds like they may be interested in Eden’s 19-year-old younger brother Thorgan.  If that were to happen, Thorgan would instantly inherit the title of awesomest name on the team.  Thorgan currently plays for Lens in France’s Ligue 2.  I know nothing about him except that he’s a midfielder and that anyone with “Thor” in his first name is bound to be a cool dude.

Chelsea’s ongoing attempt to purchase every Brazilian soccer player on the planet has apparently hit a snag as Ukrainian club Shakhtar Donetsk rejected their bid for Willian.  I don’t know much about Willian either, but he does have his own website, aptly named “willianwebsite.com”.

Former Chelsea manager-turned-Avenger Andre Villas Boas wants to foil Chelsea’s quest for Brazilian domination by trying to capture Hulk for Tottenham.  For much of the summer Chelsea has been rumored to be nabbing Hulk.  If AVB is successful in making Hulk a Hotspur, Thorgan can breathe easy that his awesomest name title is safe.

“What we need is more Brazilians!”

By the way, since the Brazilian Olympic soccer team is now in London, Chelsea might as well just bid for the entire team.  Perhaps they could save money by buying Brazilians in bulk.

Here is some footage of Chelsea’s training session at CenturyLink Field yesterday evening.  Kudos to Sounders FC for their Chelsea coverage this week, and kudos to Sounders fans for making their club one of the best supported in MLS.  The Sounders and their fans deserve to get friendlies like tonight’s against Chelsea!

Thoughts on these latest deal rumors?  Feel free to share below…

Happy Blogiversary!

Red, White and Blues began a year ago today

Stoked about Red, White and Blues’ first anniversary: Chelsea’s Frank Lampard*

Okay, blogiversary isn’t really a word, but that’s part of the fun of blogging – you can make up words and there’s no editor to stop you!  Unfortunately, that’s also the downside – there’s no one around to stop you from sounding dumb.  Unless you run it by your wife first, which I’ve done on many occasion over this first year of RW&B.  I didn’t run blogiversary by her.  Probably should have.

Anyway, I’m taking a short break from soccer writing today to say thank you to all who have stopped by to check out the blog this year!  Thank you also to those who have posted comments, “followed” the blog, “liked” a post, or all three.  This has been a fun way to exercise part of my brain and I hope you’ve enjoyed the occasional post.  Please continue to stop by when you’re on the information superhighway and bear with me in my effort to develop this tiny slice of digi-real estate.

My how quickly things change.  A year ago today Chelsea hadn’t even hired Andre Villas-Boas yet, Bob Bradley was still the U.S. coach, and FC Dallas was near the top of the Western Conference!  Looking forward to covering another great year of soccer…

(*Frank Lampard doesn’t actually endorse Red, White and Blues.  Or even know it exists.)

Di Matteo’s Upgrade

Roberto Di Matteo is finally Chelsea’s “permanent” manager

On Wednesday, Chelsea announced they are upgrading Roberto Di Matteo from “caretaker” manager to full-blown regular manager.  He has apparently signed a two-year contract, which is three months in Abramovich years.  Just kidding, Romovich.  Just a little sacking humor.

Actually, Di Matteo’s hiring shows some good common sense from the Chelsea brass.  Sure, he’s not on the big-time fancy manager short list (at least not yet anyway).  But why on earth wouldn’t you give an extension to the guy who was at the helm for an F.A. Cup title and the club’s first Champions League title – all in his first few months on the job?  It only seems fair that he would get the chance to manage Chelsea for a full season.  Chelsea has chosen wisely.

Di Matteo proved adept at getting Chelsea ready for big matches and guiding them in sticking with the game plan.  I wish I knew exactly what he did so differently from Andre Villas-Boas behind the scenes, but whatever it was it worked.  Di Matteo apparently has great rapport with the Blues squad.  It takes time to develop trust and quality relationships between coach and players, so why bust up something that works?

In the excellent (and recently revised/updated) book Soccernomics, the authors statistically show that, generally speaking, the amount players are paid has more bearing on a team’s success than who manages the team.  So if you have a manager the players trust, who is strategically competent, and a good ambassador for the club, you might as well stick with him.  Save the big bucks for your players rather than blowing it on a ritzy-name manager.

The challenge for Di Matteo next season will be incorporating new players and building for the future, while still satisfying the fans’ (and owner’s) hunger to win.  Another potential challenge will be maintaining the team’s drive after already winning the biggest club prize in world soccer.  But as anyone who followed Chelsea last season knows, despite winning the Champions League, there is plenty of room for improvement!

What do you think of Di Matteo’s appointment as Chelsea manager?

Not Good Enough

Newcastle dashes Chelsea’s Champions League hopes for next season

It’s been such a great month for Chelsea that it almost seems ungrateful to complain about their 2-0 loss to Newcastle Wednesday.  But I was pretty mad about it after watching the game last night.

Winning has a way of spoiling fans.  We very quickly come to expect it every single match, even though winning every time is rarely realistic.  It’s been a dismal season for the Blues overall, which is why this great run under Di Matteo has been so fun.  No one saw it coming.  And it just kept going and going before it apparently peaked with the Blues’ gutsy elimination of Barcelona from the Champions League.

The fact that defeating Barcelona was so fun made Wednesday’s loss to Newcastle all the more jarring.  Against Newcastle, Chelsea resembled the Villas-Boas era Blues:  some decent and sometimes fancy possession with absolutely nothing to show for it.  To be fair to Chelsea, they were scored on by two of the awesomest goals of the entire Premier League season (both by Senegalese striker Papiss Cisse).  But it was still upsetting that the team that shut down Barcelona for 180 minutes got beat twice by the same guy (and couldn’t muster any goals themselves)!

Losing to Newcastle is depressing because the match was Chelsea’s last hope for insuring a Champions League spot for next season.  There’s still a sliver of hope of course – they’ll qualify for the next UCL season if they win this season’s UCL final against Bayern on May 19.  But that’s just the thing – I’m not feeling confident that Chelsea will able to beat Bayern in Munich.  I’m afraid the Barcelona semifinal was the high point of Chelsea’s season.  I hope I’m wrong.  I don’t know about other Blues fans, but my heart is set on the Champions League title.  Yes, the FA Cup Final is Saturday and it would be great to win it, but for me it’s all about the Champions League Final.

Who do you think will win Saturday’s FA Cup Final between Chelsea and Liverpool?

Dismal Blues

Chelsea’s win over Wigan and draw with Fulham were discouraging

It feels odd to be disappointed after a win against Wigan (last Saturday) and draw with Fulham (last Monday), yet Chelsea’s play was utterly lifeless in both matches.  The Blues’ effort was particularly dispiriting for fans leading up to the two biggest games of the season:  this Sunday’s FA Cup Semifinal against Tottenham and Wednesday’s Champions League first leg Semifinal against Barcelona.  If the Blues don’t discover an entire new gear they are in for a very rough end to an already turbulent season.

Chelsea didn’t deserve the win over Wigan.  A missed offside call facilitated Ivanovic’s goal and Juan Mata added the winner in extra time, but Chelsea’s attack was extremely bland for most of the match.  Where’s the spark?  Where’s the energy?  Chelsea is a shell of the attacking team they were the two previous seasons.  Ironically, Carlo Ancelotti was fired and Andre Villas-Boas brought in at the start of this season to craft a more “attractive” attacking style and yet the attack is far less fluid and effective than it’s been in years.

The draw with Fulham was unacceptable as it blew an opportunity to catch up with Tottenham and Newcastle in the league standings.  Once again, Chelsea’s attack limped along, with the only goal coming from an iffy PK call that happened to fall Chelsea’s way (Frank Lampard reliably converted the kick).  The Blues’ defense held onto the lead for most of the game until Clint Dempsey’s late header made it 1 – 1.  Very frustrating.

I think I’ve been delusional about Chelsea all season because I thought they were much better than this.  Most fans would probably agree it feels like we’ve been waiting all season for the team to get up to speed and they never quite have.  They’ve come close several times, and are still capable of occasionally heroic efforts (like the second Napoli Champions League game!), but overall performances are painfully lackluster.  Chelsea is simply very average right now.  The air of near-invincibility fans have enjoyed about the club for years has turned into considerable vulnerability.  Every Chelsea match seems a toss-up now.The bad Wigan and Fulham matches coaxed me to purge all my negative feelings about Chelsea’s current state.  Hopefully doing so will temper my expectations for the big Tottenham and Barcelona matches.  This purging stuff is therapeutic, but it takes some time.  So tomorrow I’ll continue by addressing a few specific player issues in part two of Dismal Blues.

What do you think?  See any positives for Chelsea during the Wigan/Fulham games?

Managerial Blues

Andre Villas-Boas gets fired after 1 – 0 loss to West Brom

I have mixed feelings about AVB’s canning on Sunday.  On one hand, I generally liked the guy.  I liked his passion on the sideline.  I liked the way he took the job with gusto last summer and the way he sometimes blamed himself in the press when results were less than rosy.  But at the same time, something is seriously awry at Chelsea FC this season.  It makes one nostalgic for the mere “dip” in form last season that saw Chelsea finish second in the league.  Second!  Hard to believe that was just last season.  Are the Blues’ current problems AVB’s fault?  Partially it seems, but impossible to know just how much without being inside the locker room and on the training pitch regularly with AVB and the squad.

Ultimately, I suppose, Chelsea fans have to trust that the CFC higher-ups are correctly aiming their blame, in which case showing AVB the door (even at this awkward point in the season) is a good thing for the club.  Problem is, owner Roman Abramovich is completely trigger-happy when it comes to firing managers.  Taking that into consideration, it seems quite possible AVB may not be entirely at fault for Chelsea’s current woes.

As I’ve mentioned here before, the managerial Ferris wheel at CFC is a real problem.  The club must find a manager they’re willing to stick with for several years!  The frustrating thing is I thought AVB was that manager when he was hired last summer.  I though Abramovich had turned over a new leaf and was willing to reboot.  Instead, think of all the millions that have been blown on managers the past several seasons!  Imagine how many players could’ve been brought in with that cash instead!  I thought firing Ancelotti last year was a mistake.  Now it looks like a huge blunder.  It’s hard to fathom why he was sacked after winning the Double and finishing second in the league last season.  Makes this season look even bleaker!

I wanted AVB to succeed, not only for stability and growth at the club, but I also wanted to see this young dude (only a year younger than myself by the way) defy the odds and prove that a young, relatively inexperienced manager could make Chelsea champs again.  It must be extremely frustrating for AVB personally to have not been able to win with the kind of talent the Blues have.  It’s very weird.  After the smoke clears, I hope some insights materialize as to how this season went off the rails for Chelsea.

For now, the club has a real mess on its hands.  Where do they go from here?  Some rumored names are already surfacing as replacement managers, but I’ll have to leave that for another day’s exploration…

Did Chelsea do the right thing by firing AVB?

Blues Reprieve

Chelsea lives to fight another day with 3-0 defeat of Bolton

After a slow but safe first half, the Blues came out of their shell early in the second half as David Luiz curled a sweet shot past Bolton’s baby-faced keeper.  Critics have often (unfairly) made Luiz the fall guy for Chelsea’s defensive woes this season, but he played a relatively conservative game Saturday, choosing his forward romps wisely, none more so than the one that opened Chelsea’s scoring.  Chelsea’s defense was less leaky overall and Bolton never seemed very threatening.

On the offensive front, the Blues still tried to squeeze too many passes into low percentage situations (Luiz was guilty of this via multiple long-balls from the back).  In the first half, Chelsea also continued their trend of faulty finishing.  They too often play as if theses chances will materialize indefinitely.  But after the break, they firmed things up in front of goal, with Drogba and Lampard adding an additional vintage goal each.  For all the talk about Lampard’s age this season – and considering how many times AVB has left him out of the starting eleven – it’s ironic that Frank is the Blues’ leading scorer this season.  Lampard’s not through yet, and especially with Terry out injured, he should start every game for the rest of the season as Chelsea’s captain.  He has earned it!

So, looks like AVB will get to keep his office at least another week or so.  As he should.  Perhaps he was too inexperienced to be given the Chelsea job, but he’s certainly paying his dues this season.  Maybe he’s made some mistakes, but I’ve advocated patience from the start.  Chelsea needs stability, and changing managers again, especially during the season, would be an unnecessary setback.

What do you think – would Chelsea benefit from yet another managerial change?