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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 v. Aston Villa

Blues win Barclay’s Asia Trophy with 2 – 0 victory over Aston Villa

1st Half Highlights/Commentary

-1st min:  Amazing start for Chelsea… Bosingwa made a great leading pass to Anelka who raced into the box and shot, but was blocked by Villa GK Shea Given.  Ball deflected to Malouda who shot, but Given saved it again.  This time McEachran slammed the rebound into the net!

-Aside from the obvious early goal, Chelsea began the game very strong, perhaps even stronger than the Kitchee game.  The passing was precise and had a quicker tempo than we saw in the first two Asian games.

-Competition for starting forward spots seems to have inspired everyone to step up their game this preseason (except Torres – yet).  Anelka and Sturridge had a sharp first half against Aston Villa, both carrying the ball confidently into space.

-Commentator Martin Tyler again talked about the “ageing” Chelsea stars.  The problem in bringing this up so often during this preseason is that age doesn’t appear to be a factor for Chelsea yet.  Next year, or two seasons down the road, it will probably be something to talk about.  But right now you can’t say Terry, Lampard, Malouda, Anelka, or Drogba are struggling because of their age.

-Good to see Chelsea dominate a Premier League side, looking very comfortable in the first half.  Minor quibble with the fact that Chelsea’s scoring threats dried up in the last 20 minutes of the half.

2nd Half Highlights/Commentary

-Great to see Alex on for the first time this preseason!  He replaced Ivanovic to start the second half.

-55th min:  Fantastic dribble run at the top of the box by Sturridge, who slid it to Malouda on the left.  Malouda made an excellent cross to Lampard who headed it on goal.  Given made a diving save, deflecting it out to Sturridge who blasted it over the goal.  Great sequence, though Lampard and Sturridge should’ve scored.

-57th min:  Van Aanholt on for Zhirkov, Torres on for Sturridge, and Drogba on for McEachran.

-58th min:  Shocker – Torres’ first touch of the game is a goal!  Malouda took an overly ambitious long-range shot, which Torres calmly glanced on the run and into the goal.  2 – 0 for Chelsea.

-72nd min:  Benayoun replaced Anelka.  Anelka had the best game I’ve seen him play in quite some time.

-Chelsea wasn’t able to get Drogba involved at all in the second half.  Perhaps it was just too crowded up top with Anelka, Drogba, and Torres in at the same time.  Great to have a hungry offense – they’ve just got to figure out how to share the creative space.

-84th min:  Kalou came on for Lampard.  Chalobah entered for Terry in the 89th minute.

-Overall, Chelsea worked hard, demonstrating very positive progress from the earlier games of their Asia tour.  Chelsea looks confident and fans have adequate reason for optimism about the season’s start in two weeks!

What positives/negatives did you notice from Chelsea against Villa?

Chelsea: The Age-Old Question

Villas-Boas defends Blues veterans

I saw a few stories this morning about Sir Alex Ferguson’s jabs at Chelsea, basically saying the Blues haven’t done much to alleviate their ageing problem this summer.  Andre Villas-Boas responded by pointing to the squad’s past success and reiterating his belief that they are still strong contenders.

First of all, Fergie is a master of the mind game sound bite (covert trash-talking).  Man U’s currently rolling across America, full of confidence, toppling MLS teams left and right.  So with the EPL season just a few weeks away, Fergie figures it’s time to launch a strategic barb, aimed at the club he must know will be Man U’s primary title competition next season.  With all the talk of Chelsea’s “struggles” last season, it’s easy to forget that they finished a not-too-distant second (and that was with all their supposed geezers in the lineup).

Secondly, Fergie is hardly one to talk about ageing players.  Ryan Giggs is still a regular starter for goodness sake.  And what about the recently retired Neville and Scholes?  I guess they weren’t playing as regularly as Chelsea’s core group of vets, but still.  Sir Alex seems to believe in keeping vintage players around and the past few seasons I’ve thought him wise to do so.

Andre Villas-Boas is taking the right approach with the Chelsea roster.  People are too quick to write off players over 30.  Any other EPL team in their right mind would start Terry, Lampard, or Drogba as often as possible.  And those who say Chelsea is just relying on the same old squad haven’t been paying much attention.  What about Luiz, Ramires, Mikel, Kalou?  And this preseason has shown significant youth promise for the club with McEachran, Bertrand, Van Aanholt, Sturridge, and Chalobah.

Don’t be fooled by Fergie’s mind tricks, Chelsea fans – AVB’s got a strong mix of veterans and youngsters brewing.  In the end, I think it will make an exciting, winning combination.

Do you think Chelsea needs more youth in the starting eleven?

Chelsea @ Thailand All-Stars

Blues look a little better in 4 – 0 win

1st Half Highlights/Commentary

-First 10 minutes were once again sluggish for Chelsea.  They were firmly in control of possession, but the build-up was slow, with no real speed in the final third.

-17th min:  Some good action from the forwards for a change.  First Sturridge sent a floating cross from the left, Torres settled it, tried to move into the box, but cut it back to Anelka who got a shot off at the top of the box, but it was snuffed out.

-Anelka found a lot of space in the first 20 minutes, but his shots and passes weren’t sharp enough.

-32nd min:  Best shot of the game so far was by one of the Thai all-stars.  Cech had to make a good save.

-34th min:  Three Chelsea players (Anelka, Torres, Van Aanholt) touched the ball in the box but couldn’t get a shot on goal!

-37th min:  Van Aanholt made a great pass into the box to Torres who made a very poor left-footed shot across the goal that missed wide right.

-37th min:  Fortunately for Chelsea, Lampard took one of his classic worm-burner shots from the top of the box to score (Anelka set up Lampard with a short pass).

-First half negatives:  Corner kick finishing was dreadful.  Chelsea did not seem interested in connecting via headers or otherwise.  The corners were simply wasted.

Torres and Sturridge found some decent openings, but their finishing shots were sorely lacking.  Don’t mean to pick on Torres too much, but when is he going to get it in gear?  He is not a threat to opposing defenses at all.  He is slow, sloppy, seems to give up easily on the ball, and his shots are either too soft or not even on frame.

-First half positives:  McEachran had excellent ball control and impeccable passing.  The Chelsea defense handled the few Thai challenges with poise.  Anelka was more involved with the action than he was against Malaysia XI.  Van Aanholt continuously made contributing runs down the left flank, working several connecting passes into the box.

2nd Half Highlights/Commentary

-The only change for Chelsea to start the second half was Hilario taking over for Cech in goal.

-49th min:  Bosingwa sent in a cross that looked disappointing because it was too close to goal, but the Thai GK appeared to misjudge the ball’s flight and knocked it into the goal… 2 – 0 for Chelsea.

-51st min:  Great sequence from Ivanovic starting the ball forward from the back, played a give-and-go to McEachran, then Ivanovic found himself one v. one with the GK and slid it in to make it 3 – 0 for Chelsea.

-61st min:  Drogba, Malouda, Benayoun, Ferreira, Zhirkov, Cole, Kalou, and Rajkovic entered the game.

-72nd min:  Malouda ran onto an excellent through-ball from Cole and Malouda scored to make it 4-0.

-76th min:  Jamal Blackman took over for Hilario in goal.  Chalobah replaced Ivanovic.

-Second half negatives:  Chelsea’s possession was more sporadic than in the first half.  The defense was a little leaky, allowing several dangerous Thai shots.

-Second half positives:  Though the Chelsea attack wasn’t particularly cohesive, they were much better at finding openings and finishing in the final third.  Villas-Boas talked about wanting to see more “vertical” passing after the Malaysia game and Chelsea finally achieved more successful vertical balls today.

Also, Hilario was fantastic in goal.  I have not been impressed in the past by Hilario’s play (in the very few appearances he’s made), but he looked world class today.

Summary:  It was great to see so many goals, however, the score doesn’t actually reflect much Chelsea improvement over the Malaysia game.  There was still a painful lack of urgency from the Blues in the first half and a very casual pace in the second.  However, Chelsea was much better at creating space and scoring opportunities than in their last outing.  Hopefully, the team will continue looking sharper as they move camp to Hong Kong.

Do you think Chelsea played better today than against Malaysia XI?

Chelsea @ Malaysia XI

1-0 Chelsea win leaves much to be desired from Blues

1st Half Highlights (or lowlights)/Commentary

-Good to see Bertrand and McEachran in the starting eleven.

-Chelsea played a 4-3-3 formation as preferred by Andre Villas-Boas at Porto.

-I’m unfamiliar with Slobodan Rajkovic in the back line (22-year-old).  Apparently he has European work permit issues so he’s getting a look during the Asia tour.

-2nd min:  Benayoun took a giveaway and gave great through-ball to Torres who slid a grounder right to the goalie.  Torres should’ve finished the golden opportunity.

-First third of the game was very sluggish possession-wise for Chelsea.  67 passes in first 12 minutes or so, but in small spurts, often broken up, with very little flow and only a couple chances from Benayoun passes.

-I’d like to see a little more aggressiveness and snap.  Manchester United and Real Madrid look sharper and hungrier for goals in their recent U.S. friendlies.

-17th min:  Bertrand hit cross from left that was mis-cleared, Kalou tapped it to Lampard who missed the goal badly.

-19th min:  Excellent through-ball from Kalou to Torres who couldn’t toe it in from a tough angle.

-Through first 20 minutes, Chelsea defense looked very calm and composed.  No real threats from Malaysia XI.

-Some impressive work from Bertrand passing and dribbling down left side.

-29th min:  Lampard free kick right on edge of box, but he smashed it off Malouda and out of play.

-Torres was static off the ball for much of the half.  Not encouraging.

-Chelsea looked pretty sloppy in the final third, which was a problem for much of last season.

-36th min:  Bosingwa threw an unusual mini-tantrum, throwing the ball away when he disagreed with a throw-in call.  A few minutes later Kalou protested when he was called for a clear hand-ball.  Both cases showed poor sportsmanship/professionalism from Chelsea, particularly for a friendly!  They should know better.

-37th min:  Patrick Van Aanholt replaced Bertrand at left back.  Not sure if it was planned, or if Bertrand was gassed.  Surprising move because Bertrand looked strong and confident.

-39th min:  Torres made one good move past a defender inside the left side of the box to get a shot off, but once again from a bad angle.

-With 40 minutes gone, one of the game commentators remarked that, “…preseason or not, [he is] exceptionally underwhelmed by Chelsea.  No real movement.  No real desire.”  I couldn’t have agreed with him more!

-42nd min:  Lampard missed another chance in the box, right in front of goal, after a quick succession of nice passes (though he looked to be barely offside anyway).

-45th min:  Great cross from Bosingwa but Torres barely missed getting his head on it and Benayoun’s resulting clean-up shot was blocked by a defender.

Summary:  While you can’t read too much into preseason matches, this was a very disappointing start from Chelsea.  You would expect that competition for playing spots would inspire more aggressiveness and spark from players trying to impress the manager.  Alas, there was very little energy or zip from the squad in the first half with the exceptions of Benayoun and Bertrand.

2nd Half

-An entirely new eleven started the second half.

-47th min:  Mikel made the kind of quality long-range shot that was missing in the first half.

-First 10 minutes of the second half Chelsea showed a bit more desire, but not many scoring chances to show for it.

-60th min:  Good initiative by Terry, taking a ball at midfield and rushing it forward.  Nice leading pass to Anelka who passed it back toward the middle, but a defender cleared it out.

-20 minutes into the second half I was getting restless.  It seemed every Chelsea pass was just out of reach, or intercepted, or headed away.  Far too many long balls.  Little build-up passing.  The initial hope brought on by the second half eleven began to fade.

-69th min:  Zhirkov free kick found Terry’s head but it went a couple feet over the crossbar.  At least Terry was showing some leadership with his aggressiveness.

-70th min:  Sturridge ran onto a ball, took it into the box and hit a nice low shot, but the GK made a great save.

-As usual, Drogba worked much harder off the ball than Torres.  He makes things happen.  He’s a troublemaker for defenses.  Hopefully Torres will learn from Drogba’s wily ways!

-78th min:  Drogba free kick outside left side of the box was a screamer that the goalkeeper barely got a hand on.  The ball bounced off the post, off the GK’s back, bounced on the line, and was ruled a goal by the linesman.  Replays clearly showed the ball did not cross the line.

-85th min:  Malaysia missed an easy goal after an unusual lapse in the middle of the Chelsea defense.

-Billy Clifford (midfielder), Mikel, and Anelka were invisible for the last 20 minutes.  Not good.

Summary:  With the Blues players only having to play one half, we should have seen much more hustle and desire.  Yes it’s only preseason, but Malaysia is a team that lost to Liverpool 6-3 just last week.  That’s the kind of dominating result you want to encourage and reward a team for training hard in preseason.  You want to blaze through these tune-up games, build confidence, and peak in time for the EPL season premier against Stoke.

Overall, absolutely not the energetic, goal-blitz I was looking for from Chelsea.  It was a lackadaisical effort that brought back bad memories of last season.  Andre Villas-Boas couldn’t have been impressed.  Hopefully he’ll light a fire under the team before the next match in Thailand on Sunday!

How do you think Chelsea played today?