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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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Di Matteo’s Upgrade

Roberto Di Matteo is finally Chelsea’s “permanent” manager

On Wednesday, Chelsea announced they are upgrading Roberto Di Matteo from “caretaker” manager to full-blown regular manager.  He has apparently signed a two-year contract, which is three months in Abramovich years.  Just kidding, Romovich.  Just a little sacking humor.

Actually, Di Matteo’s hiring shows some good common sense from the Chelsea brass.  Sure, he’s not on the big-time fancy manager short list (at least not yet anyway).  But why on earth wouldn’t you give an extension to the guy who was at the helm for an F.A. Cup title and the club’s first Champions League title – all in his first few months on the job?  It only seems fair that he would get the chance to manage Chelsea for a full season.  Chelsea has chosen wisely.

Di Matteo proved adept at getting Chelsea ready for big matches and guiding them in sticking with the game plan.  I wish I knew exactly what he did so differently from Andre Villas-Boas behind the scenes, but whatever it was it worked.  Di Matteo apparently has great rapport with the Blues squad.  It takes time to develop trust and quality relationships between coach and players, so why bust up something that works?

In the excellent (and recently revised/updated) book Soccernomics, the authors statistically show that, generally speaking, the amount players are paid has more bearing on a team’s success than who manages the team.  So if you have a manager the players trust, who is strategically competent, and a good ambassador for the club, you might as well stick with him.  Save the big bucks for your players rather than blowing it on a ritzy-name manager.

The challenge for Di Matteo next season will be incorporating new players and building for the future, while still satisfying the fans’ (and owner’s) hunger to win.  Another potential challenge will be maintaining the team’s drive after already winning the biggest club prize in world soccer.  But as anyone who followed Chelsea last season knows, despite winning the Champions League, there is plenty of room for improvement!

What do you think of Di Matteo’s appointment as Chelsea manager?

Managerial Blues

Andre Villas-Boas gets fired after 1 – 0 loss to West Brom

I have mixed feelings about AVB’s canning on Sunday.  On one hand, I generally liked the guy.  I liked his passion on the sideline.  I liked the way he took the job with gusto last summer and the way he sometimes blamed himself in the press when results were less than rosy.  But at the same time, something is seriously awry at Chelsea FC this season.  It makes one nostalgic for the mere “dip” in form last season that saw Chelsea finish second in the league.  Second!  Hard to believe that was just last season.  Are the Blues’ current problems AVB’s fault?  Partially it seems, but impossible to know just how much without being inside the locker room and on the training pitch regularly with AVB and the squad.

Ultimately, I suppose, Chelsea fans have to trust that the CFC higher-ups are correctly aiming their blame, in which case showing AVB the door (even at this awkward point in the season) is a good thing for the club.  Problem is, owner Roman Abramovich is completely trigger-happy when it comes to firing managers.  Taking that into consideration, it seems quite possible AVB may not be entirely at fault for Chelsea’s current woes.

As I’ve mentioned here before, the managerial Ferris wheel at CFC is a real problem.  The club must find a manager they’re willing to stick with for several years!  The frustrating thing is I thought AVB was that manager when he was hired last summer.  I though Abramovich had turned over a new leaf and was willing to reboot.  Instead, think of all the millions that have been blown on managers the past several seasons!  Imagine how many players could’ve been brought in with that cash instead!  I thought firing Ancelotti last year was a mistake.  Now it looks like a huge blunder.  It’s hard to fathom why he was sacked after winning the Double and finishing second in the league last season.  Makes this season look even bleaker!

I wanted AVB to succeed, not only for stability and growth at the club, but I also wanted to see this young dude (only a year younger than myself by the way) defy the odds and prove that a young, relatively inexperienced manager could make Chelsea champs again.  It must be extremely frustrating for AVB personally to have not been able to win with the kind of talent the Blues have.  It’s very weird.  After the smoke clears, I hope some insights materialize as to how this season went off the rails for Chelsea.

For now, the club has a real mess on its hands.  Where do they go from here?  Some rumored names are already surfacing as replacement managers, but I’ll have to leave that for another day’s exploration…

Did Chelsea do the right thing by firing AVB?