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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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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?

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?

Dismal Blues Part 2

Why Chelsea’s oldest players aren’t the club’s main problem

The popular jab at Chelsea all season has been the collective age of their players – that they’re too old to hack it anymore and that wholesale changes are needed.  Critics may be right about the wholesale changes part, but Chelsea’s aged players aren’t the primary problem.

As I mentioned yesterday, the Wigan and Fulham matches were a real beat-down for this fan even though Chelsea beat Wigan and tied Fulham.  I guess having two matches so close together just magnified the aspects of Chelsea’s play – and the players – that have annoyed most of the season.  I didn’t have a week between games to forget the team’s problems and become an optimist again.

I hate to pick on Fernando Torres first (because he has been drubbed by critics throughout his year and a half at Chelsea) but my fan patience has expired with him.  I like the guy, have rooted for him to succeed, and wish he would be a Chelsea superstar.  But if it hasn’t happened by now, it’s probably not going to happen.  His is a particularly frustrating case because you can see potential there, but it’s never realized beyond occasionally sharp passes and crosses.  He works hard, but the effort rarely pays off with shots on goal (or goals period).  Torres takes overly long strides with the ball, predictably barreling straight at defenders, in a halting style that yields constant turnovers.  Didier Drogba on the other hand, while not having his best season, is much more threatening with the ball (he’s also Chelsea’s second highest scorer this season).  He still causes problems for defenders – Torres does not.  Drogba has been woefully underused this season, presumably in an effort to get Torres out of his slump and fully integrated with the team.  It’s not working.  Drogba needs to start every remaining game.  I don’t know what he’s being saved for at this point, as every game is critical.  Torres seems like a decent guy, but for the club’s sake he should be sold.

While I’m thinking about forwards, it’s also time for Salomon Kalou to go.  Kalou has never quite clicked over to the consistency Chelsea needs.  I appreciate that he has earned some extra late season game time by virtue of his Champions League goal at Benfica, but he’s done nothing since to merit this much pitch time.  Kalou makes too many ill-timed passes and often holds onto the ball too long.

Daniel Sturridge should start every game at forward with Drogba.  Sturridge has been the victim of too much lineup tinkering the past few months, which stifled the hunger and goal-scoring savvy he demonstrated early in the season.

At midfield, critics have been cranky toward Frank Lampard because of his age (33) but Lampard is the team’s top scorer this season!  That despite playing less than he ever has at Chelsea.  Lampard has occasional giveaways and unwise fouls, but he isn’t the weakest link in the Blues’ midfield.  Raul Meireles is.  I’ve never been thrilled by Chelsea’s acquisition of Meireles.  His passing is average, he fouls too much, and his shooting is atrocious (no, I’m not forgetting his end-of-match blast against Benfica).  He’s just not reliable enough.  I’d much rather see Michael Essien (who’s still only 29) back as the consistent midfield commander.

Ramires has also annoyed lately.  He’s in danger of falling into the Kalou category of not quite good enough.  I love his tireless hustle, but it doesn’t make up for his awful amount of turnovers!  I’m not ready to throw in the towel on him yet, but he needs some goals or assists to boost his stock.

It’s time for Chelsea to revamp, but getting rid of Terry, Lampard, and Drogba isn’t the answer.  Those three are no longer in their prime, but Chelsea is still better when they’re on the pitch (or at least no worse).  Why would a team get rid of those assets (their top two scorers this season in Lampard and Drogba) as long as they’re still healthy?

When this season began, it seemed Chelsea was in the process of integrating young players with the “old”.  What happened to Romelu Lukaku and Oriol Romeu?  We saw Romeu quite a bit before Christmas, but I don’t understand why the heavily touted Lukaku hasn’t been granted more run-outs.

This off-season, Chelsea needs to take the long-haul approach to rebuilding, which means no more mid-career, Torres-type acquisitions.  Instead, they need to milk the remaining seasons from their veterans while weaving in dynamic youngsters.  Youth is the ticket!  That strategy may not yield immediate trophies, but the delayed gratification would be worth it.

What players do you think Chelsea should relinquish this summer?

Stadium of Might (Chelsea’s!)

Blues dominate at Sunderland

The big news before today’s match was that Torres would start… on the bench.  Word is that AVB ain’t all that thrilled that Nando left his magic scoring boots in Liverpool.

On the good news front for Chelsea:  Cech was back in goal today.  It was also great to see David Luiz again, even if it was just on the bench.

Overall, a rather un-dramatic match today.  It was pretty much a walk in the park for the Blues.  But after the last couple nail-biters, this Chelsea fan welcomed the break.  Here are a few of my game notes:

-Early on, some classic Cole runs up the left wing from the back.  Ashley Cole is an unsung workhorse for Chelsea.  He’s so reliable in his position that it’s easy to take him for granted.

-11th min:  Mata made a great run into the box, but Anelka couldn’t do anything with Mata’s cutback pass.  In fact, Anelka was virtually absent for the first 10 minutes.

-18th min:  Fantastic finish by Terry for a Chelsea goal!  And nice cross from Sturridge to kick off the frantic sequence in the box, which led to the goal.

-First quarter of the game was nothing for Chelsea to write home about.  Not bad, but nothing flashy.  Expected a little more precise possession.  Apparently they’re still working out the kinks with new players in the lineup.

-Mata was a very bright spot for Chelsea in the first half hour.  Always moving, trying to make things happen.  Some smart and spot-on passes from him.

-Sturridge was energetic, trying hard to get involved, though he missed a great low-level cross from Bosingwa in the 37th minute.

-By the end of the first half the game was very casual with Sunderland content to let Chelsea bring the ball forward.

-51st min:  Great 40-yard pass from Anelka to Sturridge who then cleverly back heeled the ball into the goal!

-63rd min:  Awesome on-goal half volley from Malouda (in his very first touch of the game), but it was saved by Sunderland’s keeper.

-75th min:  Torres replaced Mata.  Probably a well-timed choice by AVB to get Torres into a low-pressure situation.  Unfortunately, Torres barely touched the ball.

-79th min:  Oriol Romeu made his Chelsea debut, replacing Anelka for the game’s home stretch.  He didn’t see the ball enough to make much of an impression.

-91st min:  Chelsea allowed a very disappointing Sunderland goal to make it 2 – 1.

-94th min:  Scariest minute of the game as Sunderland suddenly sprang to life, launching several balls into the Chelsea box.  Chelsea had a sudden 3-on-1 offensive situation after Cech launched the ball downfield out of danger.  Torres received it and had a wide-open Ramires to his right, but made an absolutely dreadful waste of a pass that went out of bounds.  Fortunately for him, the game was over seconds later!

So, a solid win for Chelsea, even though it wasn’t the kind of commanding victory that the Manchesters have produced.  After Man U thrashed Bolton today, I’m leery of the Blues’ trip to Old Trafford next weekend.  Before psyching themselves up for that one, Chelsea turn their attention to Bayer Leverkusen in Champions League play on Tuesday.  Things are about to get interesting!

What did you think about Chelsea’s performance against Sunderland?  How will Chelsea fare against Bayer and Manchester United next week?

Renewed Blues

Chelsea’s preseason ends on a high note

Chelsea won their last preseason match, defeating Glasgow Rangers 3 – 1 on Saturday.  The victory capped an undefeated preseason and confirmed that Blues fans have reason to be very positive about the upcoming season, which is now one week away.

Chelsea is flying under the radar to start the new season, which is a great place to be.  While all the attention has been on the Manchesters and Arsenal’s will-they-or-won’t-they-lose-their-superstars soap opera, Chelsea has quietly gone about their business in a methodical, un-glitzy fashion.  Aside from the summer-long Modric question, even Chelsea’s transfer dealings have been pretty quiet.  The deals that have been made are smart – the most recent being Oriol Romeu and (just Saturday) Romelu Lukaku.  Unfortunately, Yury Zhirkov is departing the team, presumably to make room for these new signings, however, if you had to lose someone, Zhirkov is a smart choice.  Not that he isn’t a top-quality player; he just never quite became the regular starter (partially due to injury) that might have been expected when he came to Chelsea two years ago.

The addition of Romeu and Lukaku – both still teenagers – is exciting, particularly when considered alongside the other Chelsea youth that was on fine display throughout

the preseason.  You can really see the future Chelsea squad taking shape, and yet, the veteran favorites are still in great form.  This blend of youth and experience will make for an exciting season.

Speaking of exciting, Daniel Sturridge scored two goals Saturday against Rangers.  He has surely earned a starting forward spot with his preseason fireworks.  Problem is, he was red-carded during the final game of last season (while on loan with Bolton) and is therefore suspended for the first three matches of this season.  Tough break for Sturridge – and Chelsea.  The other forwards might want to use the first few games to make a case for themselves because Sturridge’s case is currently the most convincing.

What do you think of Romeu and Lukaku – smart acquisitions or wasted transfer opportunity?