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Preview of Chelsea’s 08-09 Season
Chelsea’s last campaign offered a telling commentary on the high stakes of modern top-flight football and the thin line between success and perceived failure. It’s been a season for the Blues dominated by the generally unloved manager’s attempt to take the team beyond where his adored predecessor led them.
Following Jose Mourinho at Stamford Bridge was always going to be a tall order, but anyone other than Avram Grant with any boss other than Roman Abramovich would probably be praised for taking Chelsea so close to treble glory. Beaten in extra time in Carling Cup final; beaten by two points in the Premier League title race despite collecting 85 points (the first time a team had collected that many without securing the title); and beaten in a penalty shoot-out after extra time in the Champions League final – Grant’s stab at footballing immortality with the Blues was heroic.
But it was a failure nonetheless and his reward – after being questioned, mocked and damned with faint praise – was a sack within days of John Terry hitting the post in the Moscow shoot-out to hand Manchester United the coveted one. European crown.
Chelsea have lost just two of their 32 Premier League games under Grant – his first, against United at Old Trafford and then against Arsenal at Ashburton Grove. In the critical latter stages of the season, the Blues beat both the Gunners and United at Stamford Bridge – and indeed kept the title race alive against Sir Alex Ferguson’s side until the final day of the campaign, which spoke volumes for their determination and consistency.
They were relentless in their pursuit of the title, overhauling Arsenal at the end of March to finish second, narrowly ahead of the defending champions. But the two points dropped in a home draw against Wigan, for whom Emile Heskey scored a 91st-minute equalizer on April 14, proved costly, although United’s vastly superior goal difference was always worth an extra point if the pressure was on.
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 of the top four. Although they kept a remarkable 21 clean sheets at the other end, Abramovich demanded “expansive” football from Mourinho but was given more of the same prosaic, pragmatic stuff under Grant. Without being able to lace it with silverware or win over a skeptical home audience, Grant was always on borrowed time. Speculation over his future, which reached a fever pitch after the Carling Cup final defeat by London rivals Tottenham and the humiliating FA Cup quarter-final defeat by Barnsley, was a constant accompaniment to Grant’s reign.
His team 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 one, despite playing mostly out of position. Dynamic central midfielder Michael Essien also spent too much time deputizing at right-back, while the manager failed to get the most out of expensive summer signing Florent Malouda. This was followed by 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 bring Chelsea so close to glittering prizes, although it was significant that pundits and many fans felt their contribution was in spite of Grant’s leadership rather than to his credit. This was the burden of the Israeli’s perceived lack of charisma.
The managerial soap opera at Stamford Bridge ended when Grant was unceremoniously sacked, with his successor announced during Euro 2008 as Portugal boss Luiz Felipe Scolari. The Brazilian comes with everything Grant lacked: gravitas, a hugely impressive resume, charisma, the authority that comes with a reputation as a disciplinarian, and the respect of the players. After all, Scolari is 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 small. The 59-year-old has been there and done that before, and if dealing with the English tabloids is an aspect of his new job that is unlikely to appeal, he is unlikely to find it any more uncomfortable than dealing with the media in his native Brazil.
Scolari is Chelsea’s fourth manager in the Abramsovic era; the previous three – Claudio Ranieri, Mourinho and Grant – have all been sacked despite delivering what most clubs would consider relative success. So Scolari knows what to expect and what is expected: to reclaim the Premier League title from United and win the Champions League for the first time in Chelsea’s history. Another imperative is to achieve both through an exciting brand of entertaining, attacking football. Really simple. The key question is: can Scolari adapt to the demands of club football quickly and effectively enough to deliver what is being asked of him in his first season back in charge?
He started well. Drogba and Lampard, both widely tipped to join Mourinho at Inter Milan, are still on the docket and look likely to be stats for at least next season. Portuguese full-back Jose Bosingwa, who Scolari knows well, was received and waiting for him, and in the meantime another familiar face arrived, the creative and motivated Deco. There is ongoing speculation that Robinho could still join them, which would certainly bolster their attacking options and heighten the goal threat that the Blues lacked last season. Fans would probably feel happier to have another quality striker on board, unless the form of Andriy Shevchenko and Claudio Pizarro underwent a dramatic turnaround over the summer.
In terms of departures, Claude Makelele’s return to France should be adequately covered by John Obi Mikel’s entry into the central midfield role, while Steve Sidwell, while a good player, was never really utilized so will be missed. Even the transfers of Tal Ben Haim (Manchester City) and Khalid Boulahrouz (Stuttgart) will not leave gaping holes in Scolari’s forces.
The pre-season was useful, if tiring: the goodwill trip to China and Malaysia was excellent PR but perhaps of limited value for Scolari in terms of preparation. But a trip to Moscow for the Railways Cup offered a more appropriate test and after losing another shootout in the Russian capital, Chelsea can reflect on last weekend with satisfaction. The emphatic 5-0 demolition of AC Milan made many sit up and take notice, as did Anelko’s four-goal volley in the match.
Scolari said he now has a more or less clear idea of what his starting XI will be for the Premier League opener against Portsmouth, so at least one of the main pre-season targets has been met.
Analysis and forecasting
There will be huge interest in how well and how quickly Scolari settles into his new job. He would have the benefit of the doubt, something Grant had never enjoyed; but there will still be the specter of Mourinho, who won the Premier League and League Cup in his first season at the Bridge after arriving from Portugal. The parallels are here for direct comparison. His press conferences promise to be entertaining, but it’s on the pitch that the entertainment quotient will be under the most scrutiny.
The addition of Bosingwa should add real right-sided quality to an already formidable defense backed by Petr Cech after an unfortunate bit of luck, so Chelsea will once again be one of the toughest teams to score against.
And in midfield they have a real abundance of wealth. With Essien returned to the center where he is at his best, Ballack in the form he showed during the latter stages of last season and at Euro 2008, Deco’s vision adds a new creative dimension to Chelsea’s play and Lampard fit and focused, Mikel Scolari’s task to offer the running power and muscle, plus the likes of Joe Cole, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Malouda to provide pace and width on the flanks, he will find the right mix and balance while keeping all his stars happy.
Anelka warned in Moscow and Scolari may be prepared to play to his strengths in 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 through injury could make this decision easier. Salomon Kalkou impressed last season but far too often chose the wrong option with his last ball, so we can expect improvement here.
” will give his manager a useful option.
Chelsea will certainly be fighting hard for the title and, thanks to their squad’s strength in depth and seemingly impregnable home record, are likely to be in the top flight for most of the campaign. They have the playing resources and now, they hope, the right manager to win big again. But a lot will also depend on United, Arsenal and Liverpool at the very least, so how Scolari reacts to the challenge of the Big Four and how he plans his tactics for head-to-head games could prove decisive.
I expect the Blues to be challenging on all fronts until the latter stages and possibly collect the cup; but winning the Premier League title at Scolari’s first attempt after a long spell away from the club game may just be a step too far. It finished in the top three, but not in first place.
Coach: Luiz Felipe Scolari
Stadium: Stamford Bridge (42,055)
2007-08 Placement: 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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