The Premier League Previews 2010/11 Part 7: Chelsea – Next Stop, The Champions League
It was an optical illusion of Escher-esque proportions, but Chelsea went into their final match of last season uncertain of whether they would win the Premier League championship and the FA Cup Final against Portsmouth might even have turned out differently had Kevin Prince-Boateng not missed a penalty for Pomey with the scores tied at 0-0. They won both of these matches, however, and history is written by the victors. In the results-orientated world of football, in which everything comes down to the final tables, Chelsea’s season consequently ended as the most successful in the club’s history. 2010 was the year in which they reached the most rarified air in English football – Double Winners. And no matter what people say about the recent fall from grace of the FA Cup, that still means something and will be theirs forever.
The obvious question to ask as the new season looms large in front of us, then, is a simple one – which way now? All of the signs point towards the Champions League, but it was this competition that provided them with their biggest heartache of last season. There could be no talk of luck being against them. Internazionale came saw and plundered a two-legged semi-final win that Chelsea never seemed in much danger of winning and went on to win the competition. The question that Carlo Ancelotti now faces is whether he can plot a course for his side to win it next season, but it is important to remember just how difficult becoming the champions of Europe can be and that a world in which the benchmark of success is conquering a continent is one that is likely to be littered with disappointment.
It comes as no surprise that Chelsea will start the new season as favourites to win the Premier League and third favourites to win the Champions League behind the twin Spanish behemoths, Barcelona and Real Madrid. How well prepared are they, however, for the new season? Yossi Benayoun has replaced Joe Cole, a piece of business that seems, if seen as some sort of unwritten swap, like a very good one indeed, and the Brazilian international Ramires seems certain to arrive at the club from Benfica as well, current tribulations surrounding his work permit notwithstanding. As such, this year’s Chelsea team gives the impression of remaining something of a work in progess with less than two weeks to go until the start of the new season.
Some Chelsea supporters may have been alarmed by two successive defeats in pre-season matches against Ajax and Eintracht Frankfurt, moderate opposition that they might have expected brush aside. These defeats, however, were punctuated goalkeeping mistakes which, one suspects, will be considerably rarer once Petr Cech returns from injury. Didier Drogba was also missing from the team for these matches and his importance to the team was underlined by how one-dimensional Chelsea looked in attacking positions in them. Drogba, though, to another sigh of relief at Stamford Bridge, is more or less fit again and will start the Premier League season. We will have a better idea of exactly where they are by the end of Sunday’s Community Shield match against Manchester United at Wembley, but they lost again against Hamburg this evening.
Although Ramires will be costing the club £18m, they have been relatively quiet in the transfer market this summer, though this hasn’t quelled the rumour mill, which only takes the slightest tap to start spinning out of control. Didier Drogba has been persistently linked with a move to Manchester City, although there doesn’t seem to be much more to this rumour than the facts that Manchester City have got a lot of money at the moment and that, in an exceptionally quiet summer transfer window, tabloid newspaper writers are more desperate than ever to fill space with vacuous stories. Rumours of Ashley Cole’s departure to Real Madrid have also been similarly persistent, in spite of Carlo Ancelotti stating quite clearly and very publicly that he’s not for sale. Chelsea supporters can take some succour that stories such as these are the inevitable price of success. The one player that does seem likely to leave is Deco, who may look back upon his time at Stamford Bridge as a wasted opportunity.
It may not necessarily be an issue for Chelsea over the next nine months, but the other issue that the club will have to face over the next two or three years is replacing the current first team. Didier Drogba will be thirty-three by the end of this season, and Frank Lampard will reach the same age next summer. John Terry is already the other side of thirty and Ashley Cole will be soon, as well. Florent Malouda will be thirty-one next summer. Improved training techniques and diet have increased the longevity of the conscientious footballer but once the age of thirty is passed, those niggling injuries take a little longer to heal and the fitness trajectory is downward. It can be slowed, but it can very, very seldom be stopped. We won’t know until later in the season whether this is to be an issue this season, but it certainly gives Chelsea supporters cause for cheer that Ramires, their big summer signing, is just twenty-three years old.
In the Premier League, the apparent stasis at their “traditional” title rivals is likely to be the biggest factor in Chelsea’s favour. Fernando Torres and Cesc Fabregas staying at Liverpool and Arsenal respectively (assuming that they both do, of course) have provided more excitement than any new players coming into those two clubs and, while Manchester United have unearthed a potential treasure in Javier Hernandez, there seem to be several areas in their squad in which they seem to be starting to creak somewhat. Whether Manchester City will be able to gel a team from fifty pound notes also remains to be seen. It will be a tall order, but a successful defence of their championship is obviously far from beyond their reach. The big question is whether they can find more success in Europe, and that is a question that simply cannot be answered at the moment. They are probably capable of it, but the hurdles in front of them in the Champions League are likely to be massive. Whether they can overcome them may prove to be the defining factor of their new season, but one of the costs of success is hunger for continued and greater success. It’s not, all told, a bad position to be in.