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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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Champions League Final Thoughts

Chelsea finishes season as European Champions

I’m still shaking my head about Chelsea winning the Champions League.  It’s not that I didn’t believe they could do it, after all, once they made it past Barcelona anything was possible.  But Chelsea was so wildly inconsistent this season, it was impossible to predict how the team would fare on the hostile home turf of Bayern Munich.

The final was only slightly less of a nail-biter than the Barcelona semifinals.  I was nervous at the opening whistle when Chelsea’s lineup and configuration immediately indicated they were going to sit back and play defense.  I was hoping they’d take the fight to Bayern a little more, but that Roberto Di Matteo knows his way around the tactical board.  His plan worked!

Defensively, I was uncertain how Cahill and Luiz would hold up after missing so many weeks with hamstring injuries but they did very well.  Particularly pleasing was Luiz’s self-control – he didn’t make the kind of unwise challenges he’s been prone to before in big games.  And what about Ashley Cole?  Talk about an unsung hero for Chelsea this season!  That guy apparently wanted him some of that big-eared trophy badly because he patrolled the Chelsea box like a Doberman.

The pundits were unfair to Chelsea before, during, and after the final.  They seemed disappointed that the supposedly inferior team was hanging in so well against Bayern.  It couldn’t be that Chelsea was putting up a scrappy, unified team effort according to the pundits, Chelsea was just incredibly lucky.  Sure, Bayern had almost all the scoring chances, but they didn’t take advantage of them.  Pundits have been driven crazy by this Chelsea team that was so poor in the Premier League and yet won the biggest club prize in the world.  The attitude seems to be that Chelsea didn’t deserve to win because of their domestic play, so they stole the title by way of dumb luck.  Here’s the deal pundits:  Chelsea’s victory demonstrates what makes knock-out competitions so fun for fans – that you can have a struggling team that may not be as strong on paper, but manages to pull themselves together when the games really matter and end up winning it all.  It may irk the experts to hear it, but Chelsea is the best team in Europe because they won the tournament.

I was certain Chelsea was defeated when Bayern scored with less than ten minutes to play.  Drogba’s header goal just a few minutes later was so shocking in its suddenness and skillfulness that I laughed out loud.  Then I thought the nail in the coffin for Chelsea was the penalty kick awarded after Drogba felled Ribery in the box.  But no, Petr Cech snuffed out Robben’s shot.  Amazing.

I next thought Chelsea were goners in the shootout – first when they lost the toss and had to shoot second, then especially when Mata’s first shot was blocked by the Hulk, I mean Neuer.  Bayern was already up by two when Luiz stepped up as Chelsea’s second shooter.  He backed up for the longest running start in the history of shootouts (I can’t actually verify that as fact) which I was sure would put the ball somewhere in the Bavarian countryside.  Instead he practically blasted a hole in the back of the old onion bag.

Lampard, the most reliable PK taker on earth (I can’t verify that either) stepped up next and scored to make it Chelsea 2 – Bayern 3.  Hope was still alive.  Time for some Cech heroics next, as Petr batted away Olic’s shot.  Now things were interesting.  Ashley Cole tied things up in what looked like relaxed fashion.  Schweinsteiger’s stuttered approach to his shot seemed uncertain and the result proved it as the ball dinged off the post.  Now it was all up to Chelsea’s final kicker:  Drogba.  He set the ball down, adjusted his socks, and tucked the ball into the left corner of the goal, making Chelsea European Champions for the first time.

Chelsea tried the patience of even the most fervent Blues fans this season.  Chelsea’s roller coaster season demonstrates why people follow teams and watch sports, because every once in a while you get to be part (even if it’s a tiny part and from a distance) of something inspiring and great.

Plus, it sure is fun.

Any thoughts on Chelsea’s championship season?  Feel free to share below…

Chelsea’s Turn

It’s now or never for Blues veterans in their quest to be European Champions

When Chelsea overcame Barcelona to make it to the Champions League Final, I wrote that I was afraid the final itself might seem a bit anticlimactic after such an epic, heroic effort.  I hope I’m wrong!  Unfortunately, Chelsea squeezed in some pretty anticlimactic (and downright depressing) Premier League matches between the Champions League semifinal and tomorrow’s final.  To defeat Bayern Munich in their home stadium will require another heroic effort.  Chelsea can do it – Bayern isn’t as good as Barcelona.  But the gutsy, smartly aggressive, unified Chelsea team will have to show up in Munich, not the lackadaisical squad that lost to Newcastle and Liverpool over the past couple weeks.

On the eve of the world’s biggest club competition final, most pundits are pegging Chelsea as the underdogs.  The pundits are probably right.  If the Blues can keep from conceding a goal in the first half hour, I like their chances.  Offensively, Drogba and Lampard need to have a big game.  I hope Torres gets to start up front with Drogba – I think they could create some good space together.  Mata’s final-third passing must be sharp.

The area I’m most nervous about is defense.  With Cahill and Luiz just now returning from hamstring injuries, I’m afraid they may not be up to speed enough to adequately fill in for the suspended Terry and Ivanovic.  But then, who would’ve thought Jose Bosingwa (who replaced Cahill when he pulled his hamstring in the second leg against Barcelona) would be such a defensive rock against Barcelona?  If Luiz gets the starting nod, he must play with absolute discipline, as he is susceptible to clumsy fouls in dangerous areas.  I think Ashley Cole can hold off Arjen Robben on the right wing, but I’m not sure Chelsea has a defender that can consistently occupy Franck Ribery on the opposite wing.  I’d also feel better if Terry was able to mark Mario Gomez in the middle.

If Chelsea weathers the early Bayern onslaught, I think we’ll be in for a great back-and-forth battle.  Of course, I’d definitely trade back-and-forth for a comfortable two or three goal Chelsea lead for most of the match!

Chelsea making it to the Champions League Final feels like the club is living on borrowed time.  It’s almost like a bonus – of the best kind – that the team barely deserves after their awful Premier League season.  Yet they do deserve to be in the final because no other team clawed their way through the tournament like Chelsea did.  The Champions League and Premier League were odd dual seasons for the Blues this year – with their Champions League performances reminding us what they’re capable of.  Chelsea has the chance on Saturday to turn a most forgettable season into an unforgettable one.  For Chelsea veterans like Drogba and Lampard, you can be certain they’re going to leave it all on the field to ensure the team doesn’t waste this very rare opportunity.

Will Chelsea win their first ever European Cup on Saturday?

Chelsea’s Champions League Week

Blues wrap up EPL season with win, now focused on Champions League Final

Another Premier League season came to a rousing close on Sunday.  Though I can’t stand either of the Manchester teams, I was glad to see Man City snatch the title from Man U at the last second.  It was the lesser of two evils I suppose.

On the relegation side of things, I was disappointed to see Bolton go down instead of QPR.  I don’t like QPR – too many thugs.  I do like Bolton coach Owen Coyle though and never expected them to be relegated this season.

As for Chelsea, their 2-1 win over Blackburn on Sunday was devoid of any suspense since Chelsea had completely tanked against Liverpool the previous Wednesday (losing 4-1).  It was quite a bizarre defeat on the heels of beating Liverpool just three days earlier in the FA Cup Final!  It was such a frustrating loss, I couldn’t bear to blog about it until now.

I’m not sure how Chelsea was so bad in the Liverpool loss, particularly since it was their last chance to possibly salvage a top four finish and ensure Champions League play next season.  I really wanted to see them have that insurance just in case things go poorly in the Champions League Final in Munich this Saturday.  Now there is added pressure because if they don’t beat Bayern Munich in the Final, Chelsea will suffer a yearlong Champions League drought.  Not cool.

Chelsea previewed their new kit Sunday against Blackburn (see below).  I like the classy, simple design.  I was iffy about the gold lettering/stripes at first, but I think it’s going to work.

Conspicuously missing from the club’s ad campaign for the new Adidas kit is Didier Drogba.  I hope his absence doesn’t mean he already has a foot out the door.  If he does, everyone is keeping their lips impressively sealed.

When Di Matteo put Drogba in the game in the second half against Blackburn, the moment, and the crowd’s reaction, had a farewell vibe to it.  Drogba has always been one of my favorite Chelsea players.  I really hope he has a huge Champions League Final that will help motivate him to stay with Chelsea a couple more seasons.

This week is all about Champions League Final prep for Chelsea.  Cahill and Luiz apparently trained with the team today, so hopefully they’ll be fit by Saturday.  With all of Chelsea’s injuries and suspensions, I’m not feeling particularly confident at the moment.  I’ll have to remind myself for the rest of the week that they got past Barcelona, so anything’s possible on Saturday, right?

What do you think of the new Chelsea kit?  Do you think Drogba will be at Chelsea next season?  Feel free to weigh in below…

Longest 45 Minutes Ever

Chelsea – with 10 men – beat Barcelona to advance to Champions League Final

I’m too giddy to write anything very coherent so I’m just going to spill some random thoughts on Chelsea’s remarkable, against-all-odds defeat of the defending Champions League champs.  I really didn’t think the Blues would have a more dramatic victory this season than the one over Napoli at Stamford Bridge to reach the Champions League quarterfinals.  Fortunately, I was wrong, as today’s team effort has to be one of the most dramatic wins in the club’s history.

The first half was pretty disastrous for Chelsea.  Once Barcelona went up 2-0, the match had vibes of a rout.  A few minutes before Barcelona’s second goal there was the bizarre red card for John Terry.  Bizarre not so much because he didn’t deserve it – he probably did, though a yellow card would’ve sufficed given the heft of the game – but because it was such a remarkably dumb thing to do.  Particularly dumb coming from the team captain!  I just don’t get how he could weather the first game with such diligence and poise only to throw everything away by kneeing Sanchez in the back.  It’s still unbelievable.  Now Terry will have to watch the Final from the stands.

After the disappointment of the Terry ejection, the Ramires goal was a surreal lifeline for Chelsea.  Once again, Lampard hit Ramires with a terrific pass, then Ramires calmly chipped the keeper for the crucial away goal.  Beautiful goal, and the timing couldn’t have been better for keeping Chelsea’s hopes alive for the second half.

Gary Cahill had to leave the game early on when he tweaked his hammy.  Frankly, I thought Chelsea was defensively doomed when Bosingwa jogged on as Cahill’s replacement.  Ironically, two of the Chelsea players I recently wrote should be transferred this summer were on the pitch by the end of the match:  Kalou and Torres.  At first (after coming on late in the second half), Kalou and Torres were up to their regular shenanigans – passing the ball to the other team and not taking advantage of the precious few scoring opportunities (Kalou squandered one chance that baffled the commentators).

But then, in the 90th minute, redemption for Fernando Torres.  He got on the end of a long clearance from Ivanovic, very coolly sidestepped Barcelona’s keeper Valdes, and slid in the goal that sealed Chelsea’s trip to the Final in Munich.  Earlier in the game it had crossed my mind how sweet it would be if Torres could get a heroic goal after the critically panned season he (and fans) have endured.  Amazingly, it actually happened.

If possible, this match was even more nerve fraying than the first leg at Stamford Bridge.  Almost the entire second half took place in front of Chelsea’s goal.  I just don’t get how this could be the same Chelsea team that floundered against so many lesser Premier League opponents this year.  How has Di Matteo been able to create such a cohesive unit?  The Blues’ defensive discipline was remarkable and Petr Cech had one of the best games of his career.

The downside of today’s win is that it felt like the Champions League Final.  It was such an epic effort by Chelsea that I fear the actual Final next month may seem a bit anticlimactic.  Another downer is the number of key Chelsea players who will miss the Final due to yellow card accumulation:  Ivanovic, Ramires, Meireles, and of course Terry.  UEFA needs to respect fans and allow the best players to play in the Final by clearing the card slate after the semifinals.

What a night for Chelsea fans!  This unexpected Champions League run goes a long way toward redeeming this season’s travails.  I don’t know which opponent I’d prefer for Chelsea in the Final between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich.  For now, I don’t really care.  I’m just going to enjoy the fact that Chelsea somehow has a ticket to Munich!

Thoughts on Chelsea’s Champions League shocker?  Feel free to share below…

Can Chelsea Beat Barcelona?

Blues have their work cut out for them in Champions League semifinal

Chelsea are underdogs in their pending clash with Barcelona at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday.  Barcelona is widely regarded as the current best club team in the world.  Chelsea is widely regarded as currently over-the-hill and inconsistent.  But Chelsea does have a psychological advantage heading into this first semifinal leg after their huge 5–1 defeat of Tottenham in Sunday’s FA Cup semifinal.  It was an exciting win with an old-school-Chelsea vibe about it.  Drogba and Lampard scored jaw-dropping goals that elicited gleeful cackles from this fan.   Chelsea didn’t look too over-the-hill on Sunday.  It was a much-needed confidence booster, perfectly timed to prime the Blues before their biggest match of the season.

Chelsea will have to play with absolute defensive resolve and unity to withstand the slippery Barcelona attack.  Obviously they’ll need to be wary of that Messi guy – no shots allowed for him!  The Blues must seriously reduce their giveaways in the middle of the field.  They must also counterattack with greater speed and efficiency than they’ve shown for much of the season.  Scoring opportunities will materialize for Chelsea at home, but they must convert with precision.  They need at least two goals in this first leg and allow absolutely none from Barcelona.

Barcelona has several short guys so Chelsea needs to physically dominate the game.  They’ll have to be careful not to get too crazy with the physicality; after all, the refs are likely to protect the Barcelona hobbits – I mean superstars.  The Blues will want to be careful not to get on the ref’s bad side early on.  Yellow cards could cause serious problems in the second leg, so the team must be tactful with their challenges.

Since David Luiz might not be available Wednesday due to injury, Cole, Terry, Cahill, and Ivanovic should probably start in the back.  Di Matteo has several options at midfield, but regardless of the lineup, Lampard must be in the mix.  Forwards need to be Mata, Drogba, and Sturridge.  Drogba can wreak enough havoc in the box that it could open up some space on the right for Sturridge to attack.

A good monkey wrench to throw at Barcelona would be to start Torres at right midfield.  His best contributions this year have been passes and crosses into the box anyway, so why not make him designated server?  Something a little unconventional might throw Barcelona off just enough for Chelsea to get a couple goals in hand for the return leg.

What do you think Chelsea must do to beat Barcelona?

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? 

Blues Buzz

This week’s transfer rumors and signing realities

I’ve followed the daily transfer rumors more closely this summer than I have in past years and it has been quite amusing.  The latest example being Sir Alex Ferguson’s denial that Manchester United are deal-making to acquire Wesley Sneijder from Inter Milan.  It was a pretty firm denial in the face of supposedly serious reports all week that a deal is imminent.  The moral of the story is you don’t really know what’s going on with a player during transfer season until they show up in a new uniform.

I’ve kept tabs on the transfer rumors just to keep up with which Chelsea players are coming and going.  Of course, all the attention has been on Chelsea’s attempt to get Modric from Tottenham.  That deal is apparently deader than it’s been all summer after Tottenham nixed two Chelsea offers and denied Modric’s transfer request.  This mini-circus will likely continue until the season starts and I wouldn’t be surprised if Modric ends up in a Chelsea uniform during the January transfer window.

I think Chelsea should abandon the Modric pursuit in favor of another of this week’s rumors:  trying to get Scott Parker on loan from West Ham.  The times I’ve seen Parker play the past couple seasons, he has displayed the kind of relentless hustle and passion that was missing from much of the Chelsea squad last year.  Because of his age, he may not be a long-term addition, but if one of the primary personnel needs at the moment is a replacement for Essien at midfield, Parker could be just the shot in the arm the team needs.  Currently Aston Villa seems to be the frontrunner to acquire Parker’s services.

The other prominent transfer rumor of the week was Chelsea’s pursuit of Bolton defender Gary Cahill.  Interesting, though Chelsea’s defense seems to be in pretty good shape right now.  If this deal happened, I can’t see Cahill starting over any of the current group very often.

Other quieter rumors this week include Nicolas Anelka possibly returning to Paris St. Germain and Alex maybe heading to Bayern Munich or Real Madrid.  I like both players a lot, but of the two, transferring Anelka might be the shrewder move because of his age (32) and the fact that things are a little crowded at the Chelsea forward position.  It’s time for Daniel Sturridge to see more minutes at forward and transferring Anelka would help facilitate that.

I would hate to see Alex go.  When all the Chelsea defenders are healthy, they have a deep, quality bench, which is vital to the long EPL season.  If Alex left, adding someone like a Gary Cahill would be essential to maintaining that bench depth.  Anelka played in the second half of Chelsea’s first preseason game against Wycombe Wanderers Tuesday, but Alex did not.

 

Finally, two young Blues received welcome contract extensions today.  Twenty-two-year-old left-back Ryan Bertrand signed a four-year deal.  Eighteen-year-old midfielder Josh McEachran signed a five-year-deal.  Both signings seem very promising, though I only saw Bertrand for a few minutes in one game last season, so I don’t know much about him yet.  The McEachran signing is great for Chelsea.  Ancelotti worked him into several games last season and despite his beanpole build, McEachran was extremely impressive with his poise, patience, placement, and passing prowess (I got on a roll with the p’s and had to keep it going).  If McEachran can avoid burnout and develop some upper body bulk, he could very well be Chelsea’s Lampard of the future.

Which of these Chelsea transfer rumors is most exciting?  Most disappointing?