BY WASIM PARKAR – FAN FUEL BLOGGER
Fan Fuel’s Premier League previews zero in on the title challengers with a look at a Chelsea squad that is galvanized by the return of their greatest manager, Jose Mourinho.
After much hullaballoo and openly displayed hatred, Rafa Benitez managed to successfully steady Chelsea’s sinking ship last season by leading the Blues to the Champions League, in addition to winning their second European trophy in two years with victory in the Europa League. Job done, Benitez left, and paved the way for the return of the special one. Jose Mourinho claimed in his first press conference back at Stamford Bridge that he can now be referred to as the ‘Happy One’.
Looking at the depth in the squad in most areas of the field, and after witnessing some encouraging performances throughout pre-season, one can understand why Mourinho is happy. Some of the stalwarts of his first Chelsea era remain, but the younger players who have joined since Mourinho’s acrimonious exit are also of substantial quality and possess the required desire to succeed at the top level. Chelsea embark on a new season as genuine title challengers for the first time since their last victory in 2010, riding on the coat-tails of their charismatic manager.
On defence: Loyalty is a currency that Mourinho appreciates and reciprocates. This is made clear by his decision to declare Petr Cech as the number one for the season, despite having the exceptional Thibaut Courtois in the squad. Mourinho will know firsthand from his experiences in La Liga, that the young Belgian is probably already a better goalkeeper than the current iteration of Cech. By making the decision quickly, Mourinho guaranteed there was no unnecessary friction between two talented goalkeepers, and Courtois can only benefit by playing regularly during another loan season at Atletico Madrid.
Cech is more prone to errors in comparison to the days when he was the bedrock of Chelsea’s success during Mourinho’s first stint at Stamford Bridge. Nevertheless, he still manages to pull off great saves, and his experience and winning mentality are still vital to Chelsea. The signing of Australian veteran Mark Schwarzer makes sense on many levels, providing a proven Premier League backup in case Cech has to miss games, while also giving one of the division’s most consistent keepers a shot at glory towards the end of career.
Mourinho has the luxury of choosing between four very good centre-backs. Captain John Terry is obviously the most decorated of the quartet. At his best Terry was probably one of the most imperious defenders in the league. However, injuries haven’t been kind to him in recent seasons, and Mourinho isn’t one to select players on sentimentality. Terry retains his excellence in defending in the air, and his big match experience will be crucial during intense phases of the campaign. However, his pace has drastically reduced, and Terry will be best suited to playing in matches against opponents at the lower end of the table, where a winning mentality is paramount.
Branislav Ivanovic has been Chelsea’s standout defender these past few seasons, as the Serbian international has been instrumental in the team’s biggest moments. Ivanovic is clearly the most complete defender on the team, a match for the most physical forwards, great at reading the movement of opposing attackers as well as being excellent in the air. He also crucially chips in with decisive goals as seen with his match winning effort in the Europa League final against Benfica.
David Luiz is the best ball player amongst the centre-backs, and after being derided during his first season as a Blue, the Brazilian international improved exponentially after having a better understanding of the league. A sign of how far he has come can be seen in Mourinho’s refusal to sell the centre-back despite serious interest from Barcelona and Bayern Munich. Luiz can be inspired on the really big occasions, and Mourinho will appreciate the players mentality and desire to succeed, and one can’t rule the manager possibly making the Brazilian a better defender. Gary Cahill might not be in the same league as the aforementioned trio of centre-backs, but the English international has established himself as a reliable and consistent player in the squad. Cahill’s aerial forte is crucial, and he will play a significant amount of games as Chelsea compete on dual fronts.
Ashley Cole was one of Mourinho’s best signings for Chelsea, and the left-back remains a crucial component of the first team despite his age. Cole is clearly still the best in his position when compared to others in the league. He still boasts an excellent turn of pace, and though his positional weakness has been exposed more regularly in recent seasons, he still remains hard to beat in one-on-ones and regularly comes up with last-ditch clearances behind the centre-backs. Ryan Bertrand is the back up to Cole, and offers solidity, but it’s unlikely that Mourinho will resort to using him except in cup competitions. In fact if Cole has to miss games, don’t be surprised to see the gaffer go for a left-field pick like Michael Essien to cover at left-back.
Cesar Azpilicueta established himself as first choice right-back last season, and his improved performances mean Mourinho is likely to stick with the Spaniard. Excellent in supporting the wingers and also possessing a decent cross, Mourinho will work on improving the defensive side of Azpilicueta’s game. Ivanovic is also an option at right-back, and Mourinho might even start him ahead of Azplicueta in matches where there is a greater need for defensive solidity.
The midfield: Frank Lampard established himself as one of the leading midfielders in the league under the guidance of Mourinho. Lampard’s chase of Bobby Tambling’s goal scoring record for Chelsea became a press obsession last season and obscured the fact that despite still being a master at the art of late runs into the box, Lampard didn’t contribute effectively to the team’s attacking play. Mourinho will always attach a premium to a midfielder who can score goals, so Lampard will have a role to play, but don’t expect the Blues legend to be a consistent starter.
Chelsea haven’t seen the best of Michael Essien for a while, but under Mourinho the Ghanian will certainly get opportunities, and will relish playing under the intense style of the gaffer, as witnessed last season at Real Madrid. Ramires is a footballer that Mourinho will enjoy managing. His relentless energy is crucial in the Blues midfield; often tracking back to help the defence, incessantly harrying the opposition of the ball while his bursts forward are extremely hard for opposing defences to track, and his composure in finishing adds an extra goal threat for the team. Mourinho eagerly pursued John Obi Mikel’s signing in 2006 in a messy and controversial battle against Manchester United to procure his services. The manager got the player he wanted, but many Chelsea fans still question what value Mourinho exactly saw in the Nigerian. Mikel’s passing is his strongest suit, but his success as a holding midfielder for Chelsea is questionable. During pre-season, Mourinho has played new signing Marco van Ginkel in the holding role, and the versatile midfielder acclimatized really well. Expect the Dutchman to have a role to play as Mourinho rotates the squad, possibly moving ahead of Mikel in the pecking order.
The most creative and forward thinking of Chelsea midfielders is the Brazilian Oscar. There were doubts about whether Oscar would settle into the Premier League immediately, but his intelligence and underrated physicality helped him become a key player very early into his Chelsea career. Oscar maintained high standards throughout the season, playing as the pivot on which Juan Mata and Eden Hazard succeeded up front. Oscar is excellent at finding spaces in midfield, and his short precise passes often provide his teammates with great options to keep the ball moving forward. The playmaker also possesses an eye for goal with a fantastic shot from outside the box, and good instincts in the final third.
On the attack: Mourinho’s relentless pursuit of Wayne Rooney leads me to believe that the gaffer isn’t completely convinced by his options in attack. Romelu Lukaku returns to Chelsea after an outstanding loan season at West Bromwich Albion. Mourinho certainly believes in the Belgian, and this could go either one of two ways. Playing with more creative players should ideally result in Lukaku getting more chances and subsequently more goals for the team. Equally, he could struggle under the pressure of being back in the spotlight, and we will have to wait and see if he can gel with Chelsea’s constantly interchanging attacking midfielders.
Fernando Torres is not the feared striker he was at Liverpool, although Mourinho has claimed that the Spaniard will get opportunities to impress. Demba Ba didn’t really contribute more towards Chelsea’s offence after signing in January, although his movement and all-round game was a better fit with the attacking players in the team. There are goals in the forwards, but there is no denying that if Rooney’s pursuit is successful it will bolster the attack significantly and provide more confidence to the rest of the team.
There were rumours on Mourinho’s return that the manager would discard Juan Mata. Thankfully for Blues fans, Mourinho immediately dismissed such notions. Mata was integral for Chelsea last season, creating chances at will for his teammates with his fantastic passes and dribbling past players to open up opposing defences. Mata chipped in with 12 goals and a remarkable 17 assists, and it’s clear the Spaniard will continue to be prominent for Chelsea this season. Eden Hazard fizzled out towards the end of the campaign after starting the season on fire. Hazard ended up with nine goals and 16 assists, and will be expected to top that tally under Mourinho’s management. The one factor that might count against Hazard is that Mourinho generally doesn’t have much patience for unnecessary tricks and flicks, and if Hazard’s decision making doesn’t improve his place could be under threat.
Further proving that the attacking midfield/wingers department has the greatest depth is the presence of Victor Moses, Kevin De Bruyne and André Schürrle in the squad. Moses made an impact during the second half of the last season, causing problems with his strength and excellent running with the ball, while possessing a good finish as well. De Bruyne has earned a lot of praise from his manager during pre-season, and after a few seasons spent honing his craft on loan, the Belgian will look to announce his arrival this season. Schürrle seems like a luxury signing that wasn’t really needed, but again Mourinho believes the German will be a key contributor, with his ability to play across the front line an important weapon.
Conclusion: Roman Abramovich is a man who judges managers by results. Jose Mourinho was the Russian oligarch’s first successful appointment, and the owner will hope for a return to more consistent success in the league and on the continent along with the return of the manager. One improvement that Mourinho will guarantee is an upturn in results in big games, where Chelsea have suffered crucial losses recently.
There are still some players who remain from Mourinho’s first reign at Stamford Bridge, nonetheless the manager will be excited to play with the younger and more dynamic talent that permeates through the squad. Mourinho should easily be the tactical superior of David Moyes at Manchester United, and while Manuel Pelligrini is a very good manager he has never won a domestic league campaign in Europe. Back at his favourite destination, where the fans adore him and with strength in depth in most areas of the squad, Mourinho is in an ideal position to deliver success for the Blues, as Chelsea start the campaign as title favourites in the Premier League.