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Preview of Chelsea’s 08-09 Season
Chelsea’s latest campaign offered a telling commentary on the high stakes of modern top-flight football and the narrow margin between perceived success and failure. For the Blues, it was a season dominated by a generally unloved manager’s attempt to take the team beyond where his beloved predecessor had taken them.
Following Jose Mourinho at Stamford Bridge was always going to be the highest order, but anyone other than Avram Grant, with any boss other than Roman Abramovich, would likely have been praised for bringing Chelsea so close to treble glory. Beaten in overtime of the Carling Cup final; trailed by two points in the Premier League title race despite amassing 85 points (the first time a team had collected so many without securing the title); and beaten in a penalty shoot-out after extra time in the Champions League final – Grant’s stab for footballing immortality with the Blues was heroic.
But it was a failure nonetheless, and its reward – after being doubted, ridiculed and damned with faint praise – was the sack, days after John Terry’s kick hit the post in the shootout of Moscow to give Manchester United the coveted. European crown.
Chelsea had lost just two of 32 Premier League games under Grant – their first, against United at Old Trafford and then against Arsenal at Ashburton Grove. In the critical final stages of the season, the Blues beat both the Gunners and United at Stamford Bridge – and indeed they kept the title race against Sir Alex Ferguson’s side alive until the final day of the campaign, which speaks volumes about their determination and consistency.
They have been relentless in their quest for the title, overhauling Arsenal at the end of March to move up to second and coming a hair’s breadth from overtaking the defending champions. But two points dropped in a draw at home to Wigan, for whom Emile Heskey scored a 91st-minute equalizer on April 14, proved costly, although United’s significantly better goal difference was still worth a point additional if the pressure had come.
This reflected the Achilles heel of Grant’s side: they played without the attacking flair and panache of United or Arsenal, and in fact scored the fewest goals in the top four. Although they kept a remarkable 21 clean sheets at the other end, Abramovich had demanded “expansive” football after Mourinho but got more of the same prosaic, pragmatic stuff under Grant. Without being able to lace this with silverware or win over a skeptical crowd, Grant was still on borrowed time. Speculation over his future, which came to a head following the Carling Cup final loss to London rivals Tottenham and an 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 managing just eight. only one, although he was mostly played out of position. Dynamic central midfielder Michael Essien also spent too much time replacing right-back, while the manager failed to make the most of expensive summer purchase Florent Malouda. There was an over-reliance on midfielders Frank Lampard (who struggled with his own injury and personal issues last season) and Michael Ballack (who became the Blues’ most influential player in the final third of the campaign) . Their goals and drive helped Chelsea close in on the sparkling awards, although it was symptomatic that pundits and many fans felt their contribution was despite rather than because of Grant’s leadership. That was the burden that the Israeli’s perceived lack of charisma placed on him.
The managerial saga at Stamford Bridge ended when Grant was unceremoniously sacked and his successor was announced at Euro 2008 as Portugal boss Luiz Felipe Scolari. The Brazilian arrives with everything that Grant lacked: seriousness, an extremely impressive CV, charisma, the authority that comes with a reputation for discipline and respect for players. Scolari is, after all, a World Cup winner who has also won the Copa Libertadores twice.
If there are reservations because he has been out of club football for seven years, the risk seems low. The 59-year-old has been there before and done it before, and while dealing with the English tabloid press is one aspect of his new job he is unlikely to find it more uncomfortable than dealing with the media in his native Brazil.
Scolari is Chelsea’s fourth manager of the Abrasmovich era; the previous three – Claudio Ranieri, Mourinho and Grant – have all been sacked despite what at most clubs would pass for relative success. Scolari therefore knows what to expect and what is expected: reclaiming the Premier League title from United and winning the Champions League for the first time in Chelsea’s history. The other imperative is to achieve both through an exhilarating brand of entertaining and 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 required in his first season back on the coal?
He got off to a good start. Drogba and Lampard, both widely tipped to join Mourinho at Inter Milan, are still on deck and look likely to stay for at least next season. Portugal full-back Jose Bosingwa, well known to Scolari, has been brought in and has been waiting for him, and another familiar face, the creative and driven Deco, has since arrived. Speculation persists that Robinho could still join them, which would certainly strengthen their attacking options and increase the goal threat, where the Blues were deficient last season. Fans would probably feel happier to have an extra quality striker on board, unless Andriy Shevchenko and Claudio Pizarro’s form has undergone a dramatic transformation over the summer.
On the departure side, Claude Makelele’s return to France should be adequately covered by the emergence of John Obi Mikel in midfield, while Steve Sidwell, good player as he is, has never really been used so will not fail. The transfers of Tal Ben Haim (Manchester City) and Khalid Boulahrouz (Stuttgart) won’t leave gaping holes in Scolari’s forces either.
The pre-season was useful if tiring: the goodwill trip to China and Malaysia was great communication but was perhaps of limited value for Scolari in terms of preparation. But heading to Moscow for the Railways Cup offered a more relevant test and, as well as losing another shootout in the Russian capital, Chelsea can look back on last weekend with satisfaction. AC Milan’s emphatic 5-0 demolition will have made many sit up and take notice, as will Anelka’s four-goal volley in the rout.
Scolari said it’s more or less clear now in his head what his starting XI will be for the Premier League opener against Portsmouth, so at least one of his main pre-season targets was reached.
Analysis and prognosis
There will be huge interest in how well and how quickly Scolari will fit into his new job. He will get the benefit of the doubt, something Grant has never enjoyed; but there will always be the specter of Mourinho, who won the Premier League and League Cup in his first season at 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 entertainment quotient will be most scrutinized.
The addition of Bosingwa should add real quality on the right side to an already formidable defense behind which Petr Cech has some luck after a miserable spell, so Chelsea will once again be one of the tougher teams to come up against.
And in midfield, they have a veritable cornucopia of riches. With Essien restored to the center where he is at his best, Ballack in the kind of form he showed during the latter stages of last season and at Euro 2008, Deco’s vision adding a new creative dimension to the game from Chelsea and Lampard fit and focused, with Mikel providing running power and muscle, plus Joe Cole, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Malouda to provide pace and width down the flanks, Scolari’s challenge will be to find the right mix and balance while keeping all of its stars happy.
Anelka issued a warning to Moscow and Scolari could be ready to play to his strengths in the middle at the expense of Drogba, something Grant was reluctant to do. The fact that Drogba is likely to miss the start of the campaign through injury could make this decision easier. Salomon Kalkou impressed last season but too often chose the wrong option with his last ball so we can expect improvement there.
Scolari indicated that Shevchenko would 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 excited rather than shy coming off the bench, then he’ll give his manager a useful option.
Chelsea are certain to challenge for the title, and with their squad strength in depth and a seemingly impregnable home record, they are likely to be in the top spots for most of the campaign. They have the playing resources and now, they hope, the right manager to take top honors again. But a lot will also depend on United, Arsenal and Liverpool, at least, so how Scolari reacts to the Big Four challenge, and how he plots his tactics in one-on-ones, could prove decisive.
I expect Les Bleus to be tough on all fronts until the final stages, and maybe win a cup; but winning the Premier League title in Scolari’s first attempt, after being away from the club for a long time, may well prove a bridge too far. A top three, but not first place.
Coach: Luiz Felipe Scolari
Stadium: Stamford Bridge (42,055)
2007-08 Ranking: 2nd
Record 2007-08: P-38 W-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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