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Preview of Chelsea’s 08-09 Season
Chelsea’s last campaign offered a striking commentary on the high stakes of modern top-flight football and the narrowness of the line between perceived success and failure. For the Blues it was a season dominated by an unbeaten manager’s attempt to take the team beyond where his beloved predecessor had led them.
Following Jose Mourinho at Stamford Bridge was always going to be the tallest of orders but anyone other than Avram Grant, with any boss other than Roman Abramovich, would probably have been credited with taking Chelsea so close to glory treble. Beaten in extra time of Carling Cup final; edged out by two points in the Premier League title race despite accumulating 85 points (the first time a team had collected so many without securing the title); and beating him from the penalty spot after extra time in the Champions League final – Grant’s stab at football immortality with the Blues was heroic.
But it was all a failure, and his reward – after being doubted, ridiculed and damned with faint praise – was the sack, after a few days John Terry’s kick hit the post in Moscow’s shot to give the wish for Manchester United. European crown.
Chelsea had lost just two Premier League games out of 32 under Grant – his first, against United at Old Trafford, and then against Arsenal at Ashburton Grove. In the final stages of the season the Blues beat 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 spoke volumes for their determination and u consistency.
They were relentless in their pursuit of the title, overhauling Arsenal at the end of March to finish second and come within a hair’s breadth of overtaking the defending champions. But two points dropped in a home draw against Wigan, which Emile Heskey equalized in the 91st minute on 14 April, proved costly, although United’s vastly superior goal difference was always worth an extra point if push came to shove. the fe
That 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 of the top four. Although they kept a remarkable 21 clean sheets at the other end, Abramovich had demanded ‘wider’ football after Mourinho, but was getting more of the same prosaic, pragmatic stuff under Grant. Unable to close that with silverware, or win over a skeptical home crowd, Grant was always on borrowed time. The speculation about his future, which reached a fever pitch after defeating Tottenham, London’s rivals in the Carling Cup final, and an embarrassing quarter-final loss to Barnsley, was 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 netting just eight in the League, and January import Nicolas Anelka managing just one, despite being playing out of position on the whole. Dynamic midfielder Michael Essien also spent too much time filling in at right-back, while the manager failed to get the most out of expensive summer signing Florent Malouda. As a result there was an over-reliance on midfielders Frank Lampard (who had his own injury and personal problems last season) and Michael Ballack (who emerged as the Blues’ most influential player in the final third of the campaign). Their goals and dynamism helped take Chelsea so close to the glittering prizes, although it is symptomatic that pundits and many fans felt their contribution was in spite of rather than because of Grant’s leadership. That was the burden that the Israelis’ perceived lack of charisma saddled him with.
The managerial soap opera at Stamford Bridge ended when Grant was unceremoniously sacked, and his successor announced during Euro 2008 as Portugal boss, Luiz Felipe Scolari. The Brazilian comes in with everything Grant lacked: gravitas, an impressive CV, charisma, the authority that goes with a reputation as a disciplinarian, and the respect of the players. Scolari is, after all, a World Cup winner who also won the Copa Libertadores twice.
If there are doubts because he has been out of club football for seven years, the risk seems small. 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 probably won’t appeal, it’s unlikely to’ to find more uncomfortable than dealing with the media in his native Brazil.
Scolari is Chelsea’s fourth manager from the Abramsovich era; the previous three – Claudio Ranieri, Mourinho and Grant – were all dismissed despite delivering what most clubs would pass for relative success. So Scolari knows what to expect, and what to expect: to reclaim the Premier League title from United and to win the Champions League for the first time in Chelsea’s history. The other 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 required in his first season back on the coal phase?
It’s off to a good start. Drogba and Lampard, both likely to join Mourinho at Inter Milan, are still at the Bridge and seem likely to stay for at least next season. Portuguese full-back Jose Bosingwa, known to Scolari, was recruited and awaited, and another familiar face, the creative and motivated Deco, has since arrived. Speculation continues that Robinho could join them again, and that would certainly strengthen their attacking options and sharpen the goal threat, where the Blues were lacking last season. The fans would probably be happier to have an extra quality striker on board, unless the form of Andriy Shevchenko and Claudio Pizarro underwent a dramatic transformation over 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 midfield role, while Steve Sidwell, a good player, was never really used so will not be missed. The transfers of Tal Ben Haim (Manchester City) and Khalid Boulahrouz (Stuttgart) will also not leave small holes in Scolari’s forces.
Pre-season has been useful if exhausting: the goodwill tour to China and Malaysia was excellent PR but possibly of limited value to Scolari in terms of preparation. But going on to Moscow for the Rail Cup offered a more relevant test and, another shootout in the Russian capital aside, Chelsea can reflect on last weekend with satisfaction. AC Milan’s emphatic 5-0 demolition will have caused many to sit up and take notice, as will Anelka’s four-goal salvo in the rout.
Scolari has said he is now more or less clear in his head about what his starting XI will be for the Premier League opener against Portsmouth, so at least one of the main aims of pre-season has been achieved .
Analysis and Prognosis
There will be great interest in how well and how quickly Scolari fits into his new position. He will be given the benefit of the doubt, something Grant never enjoyed; but there will still be the specter of Mourinho, who won the Premier League and the League Cup in his first season at the Bridge after arriving from Portugal. The similarities are there for direct comparison. His press conferences promise to be entertaining, but it is on the pitch that the entertainment quotient will be scrutinized the most.
The addition of Bosingwa should add real quality on the right to an already formidable defence, behind Petr Cech getting some luck after a miserable spell, so Chelsea will once again be one of the hardest teams to score against.
And in midfield they have a bunch of real wealth. With Essien restored to the center where he is at his best, Ballack in the kind of form he showed in the latter stages of last season and at Euro 2008, Deco’s vision adding a new creative dimension to Chelsea’s game and a fit and focused Lampard, Mikel offering running power and muscle, along with the likes of Joe Cole, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Malouda to provide pace and width on the flanks, Scolari’s challenge will be to find the right combination and balance while keeping all his stars happy
Anelka sounded a warning in Moscow and perhaps Scolari would be prepared to play to his strengths, through the middle, at the expense of Drogba in a way that Grant hesitated to do. The fact that Drogba is likely to miss the start of the campaign due to injury could facilitate that decision. Salomon Kalkou impressed last season but too often chose the wrong option with his last ball, so we can expect improvement there.
Scolari has indicated that Shevchenko will not be in the starting line-up, at least initially, but the Ukrainian has said he is determined to make an impact at Chelsea and if he is fired up rather than unsure of coming off the bench then he can give his manager a useful option.
Chelsea are sure to challenge hard for the title, and with their squad’s strength in depth and a seemingly unbelievable home record they are likely to be in the top few places for most of the campaign. They have the playing resources and now, they hope, the right manager to win major honors again. But much will also depend on United, Arsenal and Liverpool, at least, so Scolari’s response to the challenge of the Big Four, and how he ultimately plans his tactics, could be decisive.
I expect the Blues to be challenging on all fronts until the final stages, and possibly collect a cup; but winning the Premier League title at Scolari’s first attempt, after being out of the club game for a long time, could be a bridge too far. A top three finish then, but not first place.
Coach: Luiz Felipe Scolari
Stadium: Stamford Bridge (42,055)
2007-08 Position: 2nd
2007-08 Record: 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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