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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?

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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…

Chelsea in Seattle

Blues arrive in America for two week tour

The blog has been on pause for a couple weeks while I’ve been vacationing with my family.  But I’m back home now, just in time for Chelsea’s arrival stateside for their four-city tour, which kicks off this Wednesday in Seattle against the Sounders (you can see it live on ESPN2).  The team touched down in Seattle yesterday evening to begin a busy couple weeks of training, matches, and publicity.

When Chelsea last visited the States in 2009, they swung by the then brand new Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas (which is just a few minutes from my house) for a game against Mexican side Club America.

Pre-game shot I took at Cowboys Stadium in 2009 before the Chelsea v. Club America match.

Unfortunately, the Blues’ U.S. tour this time around is geographically peripheral with stops in Seattle, New York City, Philadelphia, and Miami – locales too far-flung for my schedule and pocketbook this summer.  But I’ll still be closely tracking the team’s American adventure, so be sure to check back here regularly for updates.

Chelsea released their tour roster yesterday, which is an exciting mix of youngsters and veterans.  I don’t envy DiMatteo’s task of determining a first team from this talented pool.  Making his job even more difficult are the major players who will join the tour later (Terry, Torres, Meireles, Cole, and Malouda – due to their post-Euro 2012 rest) and four players not even on the tour since they will be playing in the Olympics (Bertrand, Sturridge, Romeu, and Mata).

Welcome to America, Chelsea!  Hope you enjoy your stay and here’s hoping we get to enjoy four Blues victories while you’re here!

Which of Chelsea’s four U.S. pre-season matches are you looking forward to the most?

Allez Les Bleus!

Why I’m rooting for France in Euro 2012

A lot of people don’t like France.  Or maybe it’s French folks they dislike.  And I can understand that a little.  They can be culturally snooty sometimes; though so can pretty much every other nationality on earth.  And from a soccer standpoint I can understand why people wouldn’t like the French national team seeing as two of the most infamous meltdowns in World Cup history were perpetrated by les Bleus.  There was Zinedine Zidane’s head butt of Italy’s Marco Materazzi that may have cost France the World Cup title in 2006.  Then there was the undetected hand-ball by Thierry Henry that unfairly sent France instead of Ireland to World Cup 2010 in South Africa.  The team imploded in South Africa, with coach Raymond Domenech kicking Nicolas Anelka off the team and the rest of the squad refusing to practice at one point in protest.

Particularly after the World Cup 2010 incident, the French team gained the reputation (whether accurate or not) as selfish mega-stars that cared more about themselves than representing their country honorably.  Since then, the French Football Federation wisely dumped strange Coach Domenech and hired Laurent Blanc, an alum from the World Cup ’98 winning French side.  Blanc has successfully overhauled the French squad, giving new youngsters a chance while reincorporating the megastars.  France has plenty of megastars by the way, including Benzema, Ribery, Nasri, Malouda, and Ben Arfa.

So why in the world would I root for France in the Euros this summer?  It’s a personal connection.  I lived in France for nine months when I was eleven-years-old.  Nine months can make a big impression at any age, but especially when you’re eleven.  I really liked soccer before we moved to France, but I really loved soccer within a couple weeks of living in France.  It was very contagious.  I was playing pick-up games with neighborhood kids the first day I was there!  Couldn’t understand a word they were saying at that point, but soccer bridged the gaps.  And the soccer never relented the whole time I was there.

Since I attended a French public school in Tours, France, I was naturally influenced by their player and team preferences, which of course included the French national team.  Euro ’88 was my first European Championship experience.  I was hooked.  I ended up cheering on Holland because I liked Ruud Gullit and because France hadn’t qualified.  The French weren’t too happy about that, particularly since they’d won the title in 1984.  I’ve rooted for France ever since my time living there, with a couple of exceptions – if they’re playing the U.S. obviously, and at the 2002 World Cup I cheered for Senegal over France because I also lived in Senegal for five years.  But that’s another story.

When it comes to the Euros, I love watching the tournament, but the fun is enhanced when you have a team to cheer on.  France has their issues, but I’m sticking with them.  Not because of particular players, but because when I watch them, I remember the faces of all the French classmates I ran with at school and on the playground, whose exuberance for les Bleus and football itself had an effect on me that has never quite faded.

(France plays their opening game of Euro 2012 against England on Monday, June 11, at 11:00 AM (Central) on ESPN)

Who will you root for in Euro 2012?