When UEFA announced its Financial Fair Play regulations last summer, several names immediately sprang to mind as clubs that would likely have to change many of their habits from recent years if they were to be allowed to continue to compete in European competitions under the new rules. As such, last season could perhaps be regarded as one of stasis for the club after their double-winning season, and this summer seems unlikely to see vast amounts of money being spent in the pursuit of the Champions League trophy which has become characterised in some quarters as the primary obsession of the club’s owner, Roman Abramovich. The new season, therefore, sees Chelsea in a curious position. On the one hand, expectation levels remain high and the club’s support retains expectations of being able to seriously challenge for the Premier League and Champions League titles. On the other, though, the club has to change its financial practices if it is to pass the Financial Fair Play regulations.
With this in mind, Chelsea have already made their important signing of the summer, in the form of the arrival of Andres Villa-Boas as the club’s seventh manager in the eight years since Abramovich took ownership of the club. There have been several acres of coverage already written on Villa-Boas’ achievements at Porto, but it worth dwelling upon Abramovich’s previous history in dealing with the managers at Stamford Bridge. The acquisition of Villa-Boas may indicate a change to the hire ‘em and fire ‘em policy that has blighted the very recent history of the club, but this is hardly the ideal time of year for such matters to be at the forefront of the mind. The answer to whether Roman Abramovich is going to change in this respect may only come at the end of next season, should Chelsea again fail to win a major trophy. There seems to be little questioning Villa-Boas’ potential to be a great manager (and the comparisons with his compatriot Jose Mourinho have been as predictable as they have been numerous), but whether this will happen at Chelsea or not may come to depend upon whether Abramovich has been coached to rein his itchy trigger finger in.
Ultimately, the key to Villa-Boas’ success (or otherwise) may lie in matter that are beyond his control. The question of whether Ambramovich has changed his policy regarding managers will only be known in the future, but Villa-Boas also has to deal with a dressing room in which the senior players have, according to critics, held far too much influence over team management affairs at Stamford Bridge. We may never know the extent to which Chelsea’s chances of increasing upon their recent trophy haul may have occurred had such a situation not been allowed to develop in recent years, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable to argue that, if Villa-Boas is to be a long-term solution to the merry-go-round that the manager’s job at the club has become over the last few years, he needs to be given the authority to manage the team without interference from senior players. Is this a matter that Abramovich has got to grips with yet, or will Villa-Boas, like so many of his predecessors, become another casualty should he fail to win the Premier League and/or Champions League?
The challenge that the new manager faces cannot be understated. The double season of 2009/10 already seems like quite a while ago, and, although the club managed to stay in touch with Manchester United for most of the season, the club’s early elimination from the League Cup and the FA Cup demonstrated, if anything, just what a diversion from the main prizes these trophies are nowadays and, whilst their Champions League quarter-final defeat to Manchester United was tight in some respects, it was comprehensive in others – a demonstration of how narrow the margins of victory in individual matches can be. The team also seems to remain some distance from being able to challenge the elephants in the Champions League room: Barcelona. If this is to be a transitional season for Chelsea, the honours that the supporters of the club (as well as the owner) really want may have to wait for a year. His job hasn’t been helped by a serious injury to Michael Essien – an injury that will keep the player out of the team until next year – and he also faces the challenge of restoring the confidence to Fernando Torres, who could yet return to the pedestal that he once occupied as arguably the finest striker in the world but has showed precious few signs of doing so since signing for Chelsea from Liverpool at the end of January.
There also remains a point at which the spine of the current Chelsea team is going to have to be rebuilt. Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard are now both thirty-three years old, whilst Nicolas Anelka and Paolo Ferreira are now thirty-two, Florent Malouda and Yossi Benyoun are now thirty-one and John Terry and Ashley Cole are now thirty. None of these players, to state the obvious, are getting any younger and, whilst there are obviously younger players at the club that are capable into developing into the sort of players that the club needs if it is to continue to challenge over the next couple of years or so. Their approaches towards Luka Modric have been firmly rebuffed by the Spurs chairman Daniel Levy so far, but the talk coming from White Hart Lane over the last couple of days will have given Chelsea further encouragement that they will eventually be able to prise the brilliantly talented Croatian away from their London rivals. It seems likely that this particular story has a considerable amount mileage left to run, but his signature has not, at the time of writing, yet been completed.
Financially, of course, Chelsea have been in hock to Abramovich for some years, and their commercial deals lag behind the likes of Manchester United, but the club is closing this particular gap with new extensions with their Adidas and Samsung contracts already agreed, although they continue to be slightly stifled by relatively low match-day incomes, in comparison with Manchester United and Arsenal, at least. It would certainly be unsurprising to see the idea of moving to a new, 60,000 capacity stadium at nearby Earls Court raising its head again over the coming months. Such a move, however, would, of course be several years away. They remain chipper on the subject of meeting the FFP regulations, though, in spite of the heavy spending of the January transfer window. In order to manage this with any degree of comfort, though, the club has to, at the very least, qualify for the Champions League again at the end of this season. It seems scarcely credible that Chelsea will not manage this at the end of this, but the pressure will be on Villa-Boas in more ways than one next season. If there has to be a transitional season for Chelsea, next year is not the ideal year for it.
Arrogance is a trait that is usually talked of in negative terms, but at the top end of the Premier League it can be a very handy attribute for a club to have. Perhaps the most useful legacy that Jose Mourinho left Chelsea Football Club with was a sense of arrogance – a belief that they were amongst the very, very best and that they would sweep all before them. Manchester United have it in spades and Chelsea do as well, whereas Arsenal, for example, sometimes seem to be riven with a lack of self-belief which occasionally ties their players up in knots when it matters. So, Chelsea might not win the Premier League or the Champions League this season, and with Manchester City and Liverpool likely to be stronger than they were last season (subjects that we will return to over the next seven days or so), the title race next season may well even end up being a three or four horse race. The biggest single question facing the club over the next few months or so, however, is that of the extent to which Andres Villa-Boas will be allowed to build a club in his image in the same way that Mourinho was. If he is and reaches the potential that he more than hinted at being capable of during his time in charge at Porto, Chelsea could yet win that elusive Champions League title. Whether that can come by next May, however, remains open to debate.
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