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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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Post-All Star Game Thoughts

MLS All-Stars beat Chelsea 3-2

They’re still in preseason.  They’re still in preseason.  They’re still in preseason.  That’s what I’ve had to keep telling myself about Chelsea since the loss last night to the MLS All-Stars in Philadelphia.  Actually, it wasn’t a poor Chelsea performance.  And the All-Stars weren’t particularly starry.  It was a decent game with a decent number of scoring chances for both teams.  Still, I’d rather Chelsea have won.

Michael Essien was on fire last night.  He looked like the pre-2011-injury Essien (which is a good thing).  Perhaps he is just now fully recovered from the knee injury that wrecked half of last season for him.  Or, perhaps he was just a man on a mission to show Di Matteo that he can still take care of business in midfield.  Regardless, he looked great and made a tremendous case for himself.  His was aggressive and fast on defense.  His passes were back to their old accuracy.  It was great to see.

For all the talk about Chelsea’s supposed youth revolution this summer, look who scored the Blues’ goals last night – Terry and Lampard.  These guys just keep on ticking.  I don’t know how many more seasons they’ve got left in them, but as long as they keep contributing like this, it’s hard to think about replacing them.

New Blues Marko Marin and Eden Hazard didn’t quite click with the team last night.  Marin held onto the ball a little too long in the box on several occasions when a quicker shot or pass might’ve been the better option.  Unfortunately, Hazard simply didn’t get many opportunities to show his stuff when he came on in the second half.

Lukaku’s effort was decent.  I’d like to see him pull the trigger on shots more often.  He could be a little more selfish with the ball in front of goal.  And we still haven’t gotten a good look at his heading ability.  But overall he had a better game than he did against PSG.

One of the trickiest aspects of Di Matteo’s job this summer will be figuring out what the best combination of players is, particularly in midfield.  That job is even harder with some key guys like Mata and Sturridge currently busy at the Olympics.  I thought the first half offensive group (Lampard, Essien, Benayoun, Ramires, Marin, Lukaku) significantly outperformed the second half group (Mikel, Meireles, Hazard, Piazon, Malouda, De Bruyne).

Last night’s loss was disappointing because you want to see your team dominate in preseason.  But it’s not that big a deal.  There is a still lot of preseason yet to go.  The team is already in Miami for their final U.S. Tour stop where they’ll play A.C. Milan on Saturday.

Your thoughts on Chelsea’s performance last night?

City of Brotherly Blues

Chelsea head to Philadelphia for MLS All-Star Game

Chelsea tied Paris St. Germain 1-1 in last night’s match at Yankee Stadium.  It was a ho-hum game for the most part – not bad by any means, just a little stuck in lower gear.  PSG was definitely a step up competition-wise from the Sounders game.  Some better finishing might’ve garnered Chelsea the victory, but it was still a good battle back to tie the game.  Today the team travels by train to Philadelphia for Wednesday’s clash with MLS All-Stars.

I still like the promise displayed by Hazard and Marin in last night’s game.  They could make a big impact for Chelsea this season.  I was less impressed with Lukaku and De Bruyne last night than against Seattle.  Hutchinson also looked a little shaky on defense and too hasty with several passes.  I wish McEachran had seen more of the ball when he came on in the second half.  I also wish Malouda would regain his former sharpness in the final third.  He had one of Chelsea’s best scoring opps of the match but smacked it directly at PSG’s keeper.

But these are small criticisms considering it’s preseason with lots of player rotation.  And considering there are so many young players on this tour.  Speaking of – how ‘bout 18-year-old Brazilian Lucas Piazon’s second half goal?  Ramires (also Brazilian!) slipped Piazon the sweet pass that led to the goal.  Earlier in the game I complained aloud about this whippersnapper Piazon who seems to have a penchant for trying to dribble around defenders instead of passing.  Equalizing goals have a penchant for shutting me up.  Piazon’s probably too young to earn a spot with Chelsea this season, but perhaps we glimpsed a bright future Blue last night.

Today’s Oscar the Brazilian Wonder Kid update swings back in the direction of him actually joining Chelsea.  What that means is, nobody really knows for sure.

There are a couple items today about expensive German club players that Chelsea has tried to get – Andre Schurrle of Bayer Leverkusen and Robert Lewandowski of Borussia Dortmund.  That’s the downside of being one of the world’s moneybags clubs, everyone tries to fleece you.

There’s also much chat today about Frank Lampard’s potential MLS future.  I think it’s a non-story.  The guy is committed to Chelsea to the end of his contract.  Sounds like he answered reporters honestly after last night’s game because his future beyond this season really is up to Chelsea.  They may decide not to renew, but I think that would be the only scenario that would send Lamps to MLS.  By the way, if that does happen, FC Dallas wants you Frank!*

*I have no authority to speak on behalf of FC Dallas.  But I’m inviting you to join the club anyway!

Your thoughts on the Chelsea/PSG match last night?

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?

Stroll in the (Queens) Park

Chelsea dismantles QPR 6-1

It was so fun to watch a non-stressful Chelsea game today.  It’s been some time since Blues fans have been able to kick back and enjoy a Chelsea goal fest.  It was a welcome respite after the ultra tense Champions League semifinal matches against Barcelona the past two weeks.

I was expecting a tense match against QPR since they’re fighting to stave off relegation and with Chelsea coming off the emotional high of knocking out Barcelona last Tuesday.  But credit to Di Matteo for focusing the squad on the task at hand – a loss today would’ve probably ended Chelsea’s bid for fourth place in the Premier League (and thus a Champions League berth for next season).

Daniel Sturridge began the scoring onslaught just 45 seconds into the match.  John Terry added a header goal off a corner kick a few minutes later, then Fernando Torres added two more – all before the 25th minute!  Torres scored another goal in the second half to complete his first hat trick as a Chelsea player (Malouda scored the team’s sixth goal).

Torres’ finishing was so much sharper against QPR, I wonder if his climactic goal at Barcelona last week finally got him over the mental hurdle that has hampered him since joining Chelsea.  He certainly looked a lot more relaxed and confident today.  If he can finish the season looking this strong, I’ll have to recant my post from a few weeks back listing him among those players Chelsea should consider transferring this summer!

Chelsea’s possession and attack hasn’t looked this good in a very long time.  The team’s amazing transformation under Di Matteo is apparently for real.  With Chelsea’s emphatic win over QPR and Newcastle’s surprising loss to Wigan, the Blues are now only one point out of fourth place (behind Tottenham and Newcastle who are tied with 62 points).  Newcastle visits Chelsea on Wednesday in what will be another must-win clash for the Blues in their bid to keep Champions League hopes alive for next season.  No rest for the weary!

What do you think – has Torres fully recovered his old form?

Goose Egg Blues

Chelsea manages 0-0 draw with Arsenal

Yesterday’s draw with Arsenal was better than losing of course, but it sure didn’t do Chelsea much good in their fight for a Champions League spot next season.  It’s a strange position for Chelsea to be in, the fact that they’re one game away from the Champions League Final and yet still so far from finishing in the top four in the Premier League.  Chelsea is four points behind fourth place Newcastle.  That means Newcastle’s trip to Stamford Bridge on May 2 is shaping up to be a major showdown.

Much was made yesterday of Di Matteo’s major lineup reconfiguring against Arsenal.  I thought it was a good move, resting some guys before the Barcelona game Tuesday, and helping others shake off some rust.  It was particularly good to see Essien and Romeu back in midfield.  I actually prefer them to Mikel and Meireles in central midfield roles.  I’d like to see Essien start at Barcelona, but Di Matteo will probably go back to Meireles.

Chelsea looked much better than Arsenal for most of the match, but the Blues had a major problem with final third passing and finishing.  Torres and Kalou were particularly guilty of this, with Malouda and Sturridge sharing some of the blame (though Malouda and Sturridge have played less lately and might have more of an excuse for lack of game sharpness).  Chelsea needs Drogba to be over his knee injury in time for the big Barcelona game, though I still think Torres could be useful in an unconventional (for him) right-wing midfield role.

It’s going to be a suspenseful next three weeks for Chelsea with the Champions League Semifinal at Barcelona, FA Cup Final against Liverpool, and four vital Premier League games remaining!  Come on Chelsea!

Will Chelsea finish the Premier League season in the top four?

Blues Best Benfica

Chelsea defeats Benfica 1-0 in first leg of Champions League quarterfinal

Where has this defensive discipline been all season for Chelsea?  For most of the match at Benfica yesterday they looked like the stubborn Chelsea defense of old.  Even Cech looked much better than he’s been for much of this season with several fine saves.  Sure Benfica threatened here and there, but the back four of Luiz, Terry, Cole, and a very surprising Ferreira remained focused, unified, and got the job done.

When I initially heard Di Matteo was starting Kalou and Mikel, I was a bit concerned.  They’ve both had rough seasons, particularly Kalou who has barely earned a start this year.  But, they were both spry, didn’t seem a bit rusty, kept mistakes at bay, and had an all-around excellent game.  Kalou even punched in the goal via a smart pass from Torres.  Speaking of, Fernando had a solid outing as well.  Like many other Chelsea fans, I wish he’d go on a scoring rampage, but the important thing is to keep winning and he definitely helped Chelsea do that yesterday.

Surprisingly, Mata had an off night.  He seemed tired (rightly so after all the big games he’s played in such a short span) and I was surprised he wasn’t subbed in the second half.

Ramires drove me nuts with his poor final passes, until the qualities I admire about his game actually initiated Chelsea’s goal.  It was his acceleration and tenacity that got the ball to Torres up the right wing, which was followed by Torres’ pass in to Kalou who scored.

It was pleasing to see Chelsea take care of business so matter-of-factly, with no major defensives gaffes and no goals allowed.  It was also great to see them get the result using several players who haven’t been in the lineup much recently (wish Malouda had also participated) – that must be a morale booster for both starters and bench-warmers, as well as good for locker room harmony.

So now, with things looking grim in the Premier League for Chelsea, the club finds itself one game away from a Champions League semifinal spot.  Who would’ve thought that was a remote possibility back in December?  Benfica visits Stamford Bridge next Wednesday, April 4 for the return leg where Chelsea will have to resist the urge to relax with their 1-0 lead, and remain vigilant to finish off sure-to-be-feisty Benfica.

Will Chelsea advance to the Champions League semifinals? 

The Bison is Back!

Michael Essien returns from injury as Chelsea beats Sunderland 1 – 0

Yesterday’s victory over Sunderland at Stamford Bridge was another serious nail-biter.  Nail-biters have been in plentiful supply this season – with far too many 1 – 0 games excruciatingly equalized in the dying minutes of matches by Chelsea’s scrappy opposition.  Sunderland tried to continue the trend Saturday with some excellent chances near the end that they fortunately bungled.

I was relieved to see Chelsea win of course, but there was another sense of relief accompanying the final whistle yesterday:  seeing Michael Essien – my favorite Chelsea player – not only return to the pitch after a six-month knee-injury absence, but also successfully navigate eighteen minutes of Premier League match time unscathed.  When I donned my Essien jersey for the game yesterday I had no idea he’d even made the bench.  I hadn’t checked the roster prior to the match, and even though I knew he played in a reserves match last week, I figured it was still too early to see him join the first team in the dugout.  So it was a tremendous surprise to see AVB chatting up Essien on the touchline as he was about to enter the game for Lampard!  While Essien’s contributions were relatively low-key, he was immediately involved, stringing together a series of crisp passes that looked like the Essien of old.  I cringed every time he received the ball near a Sunderland player, hoping they wouldn’t recklessly undo six months of difficult rehab.  It is fantastic to see him back and I hope he’ll be among the regular starting eleven very soon.

 

Another Chelsea vet who saw some late action yesterday was Florent Malouda.  I don’t think Malouda’s been given a fair shake so far this season.  In fact, he’s been woefully underused, which has now negatively affected his match sharpness.  Obviously, the Chelsea coaching staff is with him on a daily basis, so perhaps he’s been under-performing in training.  But it’s difficult to understand why he was so swiftly relegated to benchwarmer status especially considering he was one of last season’s EA Sports Index first-team midfielders – for the entire Premier League!  Like Lampard, I think Malouda has plenty left to offer and Chelsea would be foolish to squander it.  With Drogba away on African Cup duty, hopefully Malouda will get some opportunities to show AVB what he’s got.

Speaking of personnel decisions, what do you think about Chelsea’s acquisition of defender Gary Cahill from Bolton?