Last season: 2nd
FA Cup: Fourth Round
Carling Cup: Third Round
Champions League: Quarter-Finals
Community Shield 2010: Defeat to Manchester United (1-3)
Opening three fixtures: Stoke City (a), West Bromwich Albion (h), Norwich City (h)
Transfers in: Oriol Romeu (Barcelona, £4.35m), Thibaut Courtois (Genk, £7.9m), Romelu Lukaku (Anderlecht, £20m)
Transfers out: Yury Zhirkov (Anzhi Makhachkala, £13.2m), Michael Mancienne (Hamburg, £3m), Jack Cork (Southampton, £750,000), Thibaut Courtois (Atletico Madrid, loan), Jeffrey Bruma (Hamburg, loan), Fabio Borini (Parma, free), Sam Walker (Northampton, loan)
Key man: Fernando Torres
After three months of friendlies, big-money moves and those seemingly endless “will he- won’t he” scenarios, football fans all over the world are gearing up for the new Premier League season, allowing them, if anything, to turn their gaze away from transfer speculation and back to Match of the Day.
And yet, after a season generally considered to be a disappointment, Roman Abramovich has arguably dampened the spirits of the Chelsea faithful by only recruiting a striker (Romelu Lukaku) and a manager (André Villas-Boas). With an ageing side, many Pensioners are understandably worried about the coming season and doubt their team’s ability to keep up with a group of rivals who have strengthened their squads over the summer.
Yet there is light at the end of the tunnel: bwin’s experts have singled out Chelsea as Manchester United’s main rivals for the title (at 11/4), ahead of Manchester City (33/10). These odds might, on first impression, seem bold, but one has to remember that Chelsea still have the winning mentality that City have yet to master.
After all, the Blues were only really knocked out of the title race in early May – after their defeat at Old Trafford – having won eight out of their nine previous games. Certainly, most Premier League sides envy the quality at Chelsea’s disposal. Villas-Boas will have the likes of Frank Lampard, John Terry and Petr Cech in his side, and if they click once more, then Chelsea will be dangerous, especially with a mouth-watering forward line.
It is also hard to ignore the Villas-Boas factor. He will undeniably invigorate a demotivated Chelsea side, and will hopefully instil a winning culture reminiscent of the Jose Mourinho era. After all, his Porto side went undefeated in a tough Liga Sagres last year, drawing only two games.
This kind of continuity should last at least until Christmas. Compared to their chances of winning the title (where Villas-Boas’ side are 11/4 to win compared to Manchester United’s 3/2), Chelsea’s odds of topping the league on January 1st 2012 are much more favourable, finding themselves second favourites on 9/4, compared to United’s 2/1.
These odds bear both good and bad news for the Blues. The good news is that they are unlikely to crumble in the first half of the season (despite a tough start away to Stoke). Last year’s sudden implosion was provoked by Ray Wilkins’ mysterious sacking, which unsettled the squad and led to a six-game slump, including a three-nil home defeat against Sunderland. Over the past few seasons, we have noticed that Abramovich will always leave his new managers alone for at least a year (Carlo Ancelotti), hopefully two (Mourinho) before destabilising the dressing-room, and hopefully Villas-Boas will get some respite.
The bad news is that United are almost twice as likely to win the title. Whilst Ferguson’s side have previously defied all odds and excelled during busy months like February and March, Chelsea are likely to run out of steam due to their ageing squad.
A particular issue is their midfield. With two (very) aggressive wingers flanking a lone striker, Villas-Boas will likely tire out or injure his central midfielders. With Lampard turning 33 and Michael Essien injured, Chelsea will rely far too much on the inconsistent John Obi Mikel and young players like Oriol Romeu and Josh McEachran.
Chelsea’s defence is also a cause for concern: last season, it tended to crack in big games (three defeats to Manchester United), and the side seemed incapable (unlike Ferguson’s men), of turning games around. With no new additions, the Blues have arguably exposed their defence to the elements once again and will have to hope that the likes of Terry and Ashley Cole stay fit.
That said, the transfer window only closes later this month, and hopefully Villas-Boas will be able to convince Abramovich to add a couple of defenders and midfielders to the squad. Moreover, Chelsea won’t have to worry so much about their rivals. Manchester City are the only side likely to pip the Blues to second place, yet doubts remain about Roberto Mancini’s ability to deal with a stressful three-horse race.
Last season, the Citizens lost five games and drew two between late January and early May. Liverpool and Arsenal, on the other hand, are as likely as not (17/20 both ways) to end the season less than 10.5 and 6.5 points behind the Pensioners respectively. Whilst Arsenal will almost certainly lose half their midfield (Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas), Reds boss Kenny Dalglish has spent nearly £100 million on players who might not fit into a top-four side.
Another important factor is Villas-Boas‘ attacking brand of football, which will hopefully bring out the best in Didier Drogba and Fernando Torres. The ex-Porto manager will do his best to help the Spaniard believe in himself. If he finds his feet, Torres will become a matchwinner, a factor which might help Chelsea once the squad starts running out of steam in the spring.
Hence, at 10/1, he might just be worth a bet to top this year’s goalscoring charts. Drogba and Florent Malouda are hardly a spent force, whilst his successor Lukaku and an impressive Daniel Sturridge might just see Chelsea hit the back of the net more than Manchester United this season. In this regard, Chelsea are second favourites with 19/20 compared to the Red Devils‘ 17/20.
Chelsea remain strong title contenders. One oft-quoted issue which needs addressing is, as always, the size of the squad. Hopefully, Abramovich might consent to a couple of transfers during the winter to relieve a team which might be stretched to breaking point.
To remedy the age problem, Andre Villas-Boas has brought in his fitness coach from Porto, Jose Mario Rocha, a man who kept Porto’s big guns firing last season, with hardly any major players missing more than a handful of games.
While Chelsea’s lack of youth might create cause for concern, it might not be enough to condemn them altogether. If United’s recent success is anything to go by, one realises that a relatively ageing squad can keep the scoreboard ticking and even achieve the unthinkable. If the Reds won the title and reached another Champions League final last year, then why can’t Chelsea? If the Blues can fit Oriol Romeu, Sturridge and McEachran into the side, like Ferguson did with Javier Hernandez and Fabio, they will be even more dangerous.
More importantly, much will depend on Villas-Boas‘ ability to make the squad gel and find some continuity. The Portuguese is known for helping his players rediscover some confidence in themselves, and for his success in the Europa League.
Hence, a good European run might just push Chelsea’s players to make that extra effort in the Premier League. Another issue which the manager will hopefully address this season is big games. Last season, Chelsea’s defeats in crucial ties (a good example would be the two-nil defeat at Anfield) seriously affected the squad’s morale.
Villas-Boas, on the other hand, led Porto to a five-nil win over Benfica in the league and even overturned a two-nil defeat against the same side in the Portuguese Cup. Porto’s merciless war machine also crushed a number of excellent European sides (including Villareal and CSKA Moscow) on its way to an unexpected Europa League triumph.
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