Premiership Preview–3. Chelsea

Chelsea has not finished outside the top two in five seasons, a span in which they’re averaging a mind-blowing 88.5 points a season. They’ve won two Premiership titles, two Carling Cups, an FA Cup, and, for what it’s worth, a Community Shield, during this stretch. They have an impressive, slightly overrated in my opinion because of the number of draws, unbeaten streak at home in the league — 82 games and counting.

For all of that success, though, the one trophy most coveted by the West London club and its fans, the Champions League, has painfully eluded their grasp over that time. Counting last year’s run, the Blues have made it at least to the semifinals of Europe’s top club competition in four of those last five years, but they failed to win the whole thing every time.

Chelsea literally was inches away from putting an end to that on that rainy May night in Moscow against Manchester United, but as we all remember, John Terry slipped on his run-up and missed the penalty kick that would’ve won the final in a shootout, and Nicholas Anelka’s effort was saved three rounds later by Edwin van der Sar to give United their third European Cup/Champions League title.

The big story at Stamford Bridge this summer is the hiring of Luiz Felipe Scolari, a former World Cup-winning manager with Brazil and two-time winner of Copa Libertadores in the ’90’s. Scolari doesn’t have any experience with European club soccer, much less at such a high-profile post as Chelsea boss, but this is a man who can deal with big egos and make sure the team comes first. Unlike his predecessor, Avram Grant, Scolari has been around the block a few times and won’t simply be a “yes man” for wealthy owner Roman Abramovich.

The problem with Scolari is his age — almost 60. He’s at a point in his career where most managers are leaving club jobs to either retire or take up less demanding international posts. Scolari is doing the exact opposite, and while there’s no question that he’s a fiery, passionate guy in spurts, which we’ve seen with Brazil and Portugal more recently, I’m not sure that he can bring the energy necessary to the position over the course of such a grueling season. He reminds me of a fire in a way — when first lit and provided with kindling, he can burn quickly and the light and heat is there, but as the fuel runs out, the flame dies down. That’s the scenario I expect to see with Scolari this season, one that may provide a shock to him as far as how difficult the transition from international to club management truly is.

He’s brought a couple of the Portuguese stars he coached during his tenure with the Iberian country with him in Deco, who was a steal for $16 million, and Bosingwa, who will provide much-needed stability to the right back position that had become a revolving door under Grant and José Mourinho before him.

Those two were Chelsea’s only acquisitions so far, but they haven’t lost a whole lot either. Steve Sidwell never should have went to Chelsea in the first place. He was just a spare part at the Bridge and his talent was wasted there, so he moved to Aston Villa and will reap the personal benefits from doing so. Tal Ben Haim was nothing more than cover at center back but the emergence of Branislav Ivanovic, who has spent the past couple seasons at Lokomotiv Moscow, meant Ben Haim was surplus to requirements. Claude Makelele was a great player in his prime and is what all defensive midfielders aspire to be, but as age has caught up with him (he’s lost more than a step) and Michael Essien and John Obi Mikel continue to develop, the Frenchman’s services were no longer needed.

Essien and Obi Mikel are two cogs to a Chelsea midfield that is absolutely stacked. They don’t have much quality on the wings aside from Joe Cole, who isn’t even a prototypical wide player anyway. Florent Malouda and Shaun Wright-Phillips don’t cut it at a club as big as Chelsea, simple as that, though they do have their good moments. Essien, Michael Ballack, Deco, and Frank Lampard are all great center midfielders, and Obi Mikel may be on his way to that status if he could manage to stay on the field and not pick up silly bookings. Scolari has to find a way to get as much of this talent on the field at one time as possible, so you could see a narrow diamond in the middle, similar to what AC Milan and the Italian national team employ, a 4-1-4-1 with Didier Drogba as the lone striker, or the same 4-3-3/4-5-1 that’s been used in recent seasons.

Projected Starting Lineup (4-3-3/4-5-1):
GK: Petr Cech

RB: Bosingwa
CB: John Terry (captain)
CB: Ricardo Carvalho
LB: Ashley Cole

RCMF: Lampard
DMF: Essien
LCMF: Deco

RMF/RWF: Wright-Phillips
ST: Drogba

This midfield and front line will be very fluid based on fitness and form; Nicholas Anelka will get a chance to play up top or wide left, as will Salomon Kalou. Malouda plays there too. Wright-Phillips brings pace to the right flank. Scott Sinclair, like Kalou, is a speedy winger/striker that can make an impact. Obi Mikel can be brought on late to lock a game down in place of a more attack-minded player and clog up the midfield. Chelsea paid a lot of money for Andriy Shevchenko, so he’s going to play up front at some point. Scolari has plenty of options depending on his strategy in a given game.

Chelsea’s Premiership schedule sets up relatively comfortably through November; their road games (Wigan, Manchester City, Stoke City, Middlesbrough, Hull City, Blackburn, and West Brom) are all very winnable, and the other teams, who, granted, will provide stiff opposition for Chelsea, all come to Stamford Bridge and Chelsea just doesn’t lose there. Those teams: Portsmouth, Tottenham, Manchester United, Aston Villa, Liverpool, Sunderland, Newcastle, and Arsenal. By no means am I saying Chelsea will waltz through the first half of their league campaign, but they do have the significant advantage of playing those tough teams at home.

The schedule balances out in the second half, obviously, so Chelsea has to visit all those sides at some point. However, there isn’t one month that stands out above the rest from December on as being much trickier than another. December is Chelsea’s easiest month — they visit Bolton, Everton, and Fulham and host West Ham and West Brom. Their toughest month is probably March, because even though they play Manchester United and Liverpool in January, those are the bookend games of their four total and the middle two are at home against Stoke and Middlesbrough. In March, Chelsea goes to Portsmouth and Tottenham and welcome Manchester City to West London in between.

Bottom Line: I’m not exactly going out on a limb by saying this team is very, very good. There are no obvious weaknesses; they do need some more quality on the wings, but Scolari has the personnel to not even use wingers in the first place if he doesn’t want to. Chelsea’s fortunes depend largely on Scolari and how he adapts to the Premiership, because while the on-field talent is there, there’s no question in my mind that Scolari is the least capable manager out of Arsene Wenger, Rafa Benitez, and Sir Alex Ferguson. If Scolari makes a seamless transition, Chelsea can make a run at their third title in five seasons and their first Champions League. If his act wears thin like I believe it will, Chelsea will find themselves out of the running in both competitions by February or March.


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