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Preview of Chelsea’s 08-09 Season
Chelsea’s last campaign offered a striking commentary on the high stakes in modern top-flight football and the fine line between success and perceived failure. For the Blues, it was a season dominated by a generally unloved manager’s attempt to take the team further from where his much-loved predecessor had taken them.
Following Jose Mourinho to Stamford Bridge was always going to be a tall order, but anyone other than Abraham Grant, with any boss other than Roman Abramovich, would probably be praised for taking Chelsea so close to treble glory. Beaten in extra time of Carling Cup final; fell two points short of the Premier League title race despite amassing 85 points (the first time a team had amassed that many without securing the title); and beaten on penalties after extra time in the Champions League final – Grant’s stab at football immortality with the Blues was heroic.
But it was still a failure, and his reward – after being doubted, mocked and judged with faint praise – was the sacking, within days of John Terry hitting the post in a Moscow showdown to hand Manchester United the coveted European crown.
Chelsea have lost just two of their 32 Premier League games under Grant – his first, against United at Old Trafford and then against Arsenal at Ashburton Grove. In the critical latter stages of the season, the Blues beat both the Gunners and United at Stamford Bridge – and indeed kept the title race against Sir Alex Ferguson’s side alive until the final day of the campaign, which spoke volumes for their determination and consistency.
They have been relentless in their pursuit of the title, overhauling Arsenal at the end of March to finish second and come within a whisker of overtaking the defending champions. But dropping two points in a home draw against Wigan, for which Emile Heskey equalized in the 91st minute on April 14, proved costly, although United’s vastly superior goal difference was always worth an extra point if push came to shove.
It reflected the Achilles heel of Grant’s side: they played without the attacking flair and panache of United or Arsenal, and actually scored the fewest goals of the top four. Although they kept a remarkable 21 clean sheets at the other end, Abramovich demanded ‘expansive’ football after Mourinho but got more of the same prosaic, pragmatic stuff under Grant. Without the ability to tie it in with silverware, or win over skeptical home audiences, Grant was always on borrowed time. Speculation over his future, which reached a fever pitch after the Carling Cup final defeat to London rivals Tottenham and the embarrassing FA Cup quarter-final loss to Barnsley, has been a constant accompaniment to Grant’s reign.
His side showed character and resilience, particularly defensively, but often struggled for creativity and goals, with Didier Drogba scoring just eight in the league and January import Nicolas Anelka just one, despite playing mostly out of position. Dynamic central midfielder Michael Essien has also spent too much time being substituted at right-back, while the manager has failed to get anything out of expensive summer signing Florent Malouda. The result was an over-reliance on midfielders Frank Lampard (who had his own injury and personal problems last season) and Michael Ballack (who became the Blues’ most influential player in the final third of the campaign). Their goals and dynamism helped push Chelsea closer to glittering prizes, although it was symptomatic that pundits and many fans felt their contribution was despite, rather than thanks to, Grant’s leadership. It was a burden the Israeli imposed on him due to his lack of charisma.
The managerial soap opera at Stamford Bridge ended when Grant was unceremoniously sacked and his successor announced during Euro 2008 as Portugal coach Luiz Felipe Scolari. The Brazilian comes with everything that Grant lacked: gravitas, an extremely impressive CV, charisma, the authority that follows a reputation as a disciplinarian and the respect of the players. Scolari is still a World Cup winner who also won the Copa Libertadores twice.
If he has reserves because he has been out of club football for seven years, the risk seems to be low. The 59-year-old has been there and done that before, and if dealing with the English tabloid press is an aspect of his new job he’s unlikely to like, it’s unlikely to be any more uncomfortable than dealing with the media in his native Brazil.
Scolari is Chelsea’s fourth manager in the Abramsovic era; the previous three – Claudio Ranieri, Mourinho and Grant – were sacked despite delivering what most clubs would pass for relative success. So Scolari knows what to expect and what is expected: to win back the Premier League title from United and win the Champions League for the first time in Chelsea’s history. The second imperative is to achieve both through an exciting brand of entertaining, attacking football. Simple really. The key question is: can Scolari adapt to the demands of club football quickly and effectively enough to deliver what is needed in his first season back on the pitch?
He’s off to a good start. Drogba and Lampard, both widely tipped to join Mourinho at Inter Milan, are still at the Bridge and look set to stay at least next season. Portuguese defender Jose Bosingwa, well known to Scolari, was recruited and awaited, and since then another familiar face has arrived, the creative and motivated Deco. There is still speculation that Robinho could join them, and that would certainly bolster their attacking options and tighten up the goal threat, where the Blues were lacking last season. Fans would probably feel happier to have an additional quality striker, unless the form of Andrii Shevchenko and Claudio Pizarro underwent a dramatic transformation in the summer.
In terms of departures, Claude Makelele’s return to France should be adequately covered by the emergence of John Obi Mikel in the central midfield role, while Steve Sidwell, although a good player, was never really used so he won’t be missing. Nor will the transfers of Tal Ben Haim (Manchester City) and Khalid Boulahrouz (Stuttgart) leave holes in Scolari’s forces.
The pre-season was useful if busy: the goodwill trip to China and Malaysia was great PR, but Scolaria was probably of limited value in terms of preparation. But a trip to Moscow for the Railwaymen’s Cup offered a more important test and, losing another shootout in the Russian capital aside, Chelsea can reflect on last weekend with satisfaction. An emphatic 5-0 demolition of AC Milan made many sit up and take notice, as did Anelka’s four-goal barrage in the rout.
Scolari said he now more or less has his starting XI in mind for the Premier League opener against Portsmouth, so at least one of his main pre-season goals has been achieved.
Analysis and forecast
There will be huge interest in how well and quickly Scolari settles into his new job. He would get the benefit of the doubt, something Grant never enjoyed; but he will continue to be the specter of Mourinho, who won the Premier League and League Cup in his first season at the Bridge after arriving from Portugal. The parallels are there for direct comparison. His press conferences promise to be entertaining, but it’s on the pitch that the fun quotient will come under the most scrutiny.
The addition of Bosingwa should add real quality down the right to an already fearsome defence, with Petr Cech needing some luck behind him after an unlucky spell, so Chelsea will once again be one of the hardest teams to score against.
And in the midfield they have a real cornucopia. With Essien back in the center where he is at his best, Ballack in the form he showed during the latter stages of last season and at Euro 2008, Deco’s vision adding a new creative dimension to Chelsea’s game and Lampard fit and focus, Mikel offering the strength and running muscle , as well as Joe Cole, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Malouda to provide pace and width on the flanks, Scolari’s challenge will be to find the right mix and balance while keeping all his stars happy.
Anelka was given a warning in Moscow and Scolari may be ready to play to his strengths, through the middle, at Drogba’s expense in the way that Grant has been reluctant to do. The fact that Drogba is likely to miss the start of the campaign through injury could make that decision easier. Salomon Kalku impressed last season, but too often took the wrong option with his last ball, so we can expect improvement there.
Scolari has hinted that Shevchenko will not be in the starting line-up, at least initially, but the Ukrainian said he is determined to make an impact at Chelsea and if he is upbeat rather than confident when he comes off the bench, he will give his manager a useful option.
Chelsea will certainly challenge for the title, and with their squad strength and seemingly unbeaten home record, they are likely to be in the top few spots for most of the campaign. They have the playing resources and now, they hope, the right manager to win big again. But much will also depend on United, Arsenal and Liverpool at least, so how Scolari reacts to the challenge of the Big Four and how he plans his tactics in the head-to-head could be decisive.
I expect the Blues to be challenging on all fronts until the final stages, and possibly win the cup; but winning the Premier League title at Scolari’s first attempt, after a long spell out of the club game, could prove to be a bridge too far. Then he finished in the top three, but not in first place.
Coach: Luiz Felipe Scolari
Stadium: Stamford Bridge (42,055)
2007-08 Position: 2nd
2007-08 Record: P-38 V-25 D-10 L-3 GF-65 GA-26 GD-39 Pts-85
Jose Bosingwa (FC Porto, £16.2m), Deco (Barcelona, £8m).
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