Can Chelsea's reloaded squad repeat?

BY Jamie Trecker • September 19, 2012

The Champions League roars on Wednesday with the defending champions and the pre-tournament favorites entering the fray. Chelsea look to retain their title in the face of an offseason that saw their most valuable player depart to China — while Barcelona look to take their third title in five years behind Lionel Messi.

Chelsea versus Juventus (live, Wednesday, FOX Soccer, 2 p.m. ET) headlines a jam-packed day of action that sees all eight games broadcast live on FOX Soccer, FOX Soccer Plus, the FOX Sports Net regionals and FOXSoccer2GO. Other key games include Manchester United vs. Galatasaray (FOX Soccer Plus, 2 p.m. ET) and Barcelona vs. Spartak Moscow (FOX Sports Net regionals, 2 p.m. ET).

But most eyes will be on London and Catalonia, home to two of the biggest giants in this entire competition — and object lessons in the divergent paths of modern soccer.

Chelsea is the trailblazer for a particularly modern model: owned by a Russian oligarch, the Blues were transformed from a London chump into King Kong thanks to massive injections of cash. Since Roman Abramovich’s largesse, Chelsea have been reliable top four finishers in the Premier League, winning it three times since 2004.

Yet until last year — and an unlikely win in Munich against the hosts, Bayern — Chelsea had been stubbornly held at bay in Europe. This was a truly remarkable win: the team seemed to have imploded in May under the reign of the wildly unpopular head coach Andre Villas-Boas and managed to pick itself up under then interim manager Roberto Di Matteo. Ten remarkable weeks later, Chelsea was hoisting the big-eared jug after beating the hosts on penalty kicks. Even the (many) cynics who had complained about the London side’s attempt to buy titles had to admit it was the best magic act since Doug Henning.

But it was an act with a shelf life and in the summer, Chelsea went under the knife. Star striker Didier Drogba sped off to China in one of the odder moves of the year; Salomon Kalou, Raul Meireles and Jose Bosingwa all followed him out the door. Two dozen others were loaned out, including some heavy hitters: Michael Essien, Kevin de Bruyne, Gael Kakuta and Romelu Lukaku.

Chelsea are hardly starved for talent: they snapped up the early candidate for Premiership player of the season, Eden Hazard, in a $50million move from Lille and added on with a grab for Internacional’s Oscar for $40million more. They also have managed to get the poster child for wasteful spending, Fernando Torres, back on track and currently sit atop the Premier League. A fluke? No, Chelsea seems to have finally married its resources to restraint and have to be considered one of the favorites.

Barcelona is Chelsea’s polar opposite: it remains an actual club, wholly owned by its supporters. It is also the world’s second-wealthiest sports team and is able to spend at its leisure. Instead, it has relied heavily on its academy program, the famed La Masia, to churn out prospects.

It works. None other than Messi is a graduate. Nine of his teammates are on the current squad for the defending World Cup champs Spain. Barcelona are perfect so far this season in La Liga play and look to be well on the way to clawing back the title from arch-rivals Real Madrid.

Barcelona has also changed how we think about the game of soccer. The tiki-taka style — basically “pass the ball until your opponent falls down from exhaustion” — is today the most imitated and sought-after style of play in the game. It succeeds at Barcelona because they have three of the best players in the world: Andres Iniesta, Xavi and of course Messi. Barcelona is able to dominate possession and control the speed of a game — but that hardly means they are unbeatable.

In fact, Barcelona exited last year’s Champions League in the semifinals at the hands of Chelsea. The Blues demonstrated too much consternation that a determined defense and negative soccer can stifle even the most incisive side.

In fact, Barcelona’s new coach, Tito Vilanova, now has a task on his hands: the Catalans need some refreshing, but so far they have stayed conservative, picking up only Jordi Alba and Arsenal’s Alex Song. Both are quality players but they don’t address the fact that the core of Barcelona’s squad has now played a solid six years of high level soccer — and showed serious signs of wear and tear at the end of last season. The only major title they collected was the Copa Del Rey (sorry, fans of the Club World Cup, but let’s get serious here) and by season’s close they looked like a group begging to be let home.

Instead, the core went on to Poland and Ukraine and took another trophy for Spain. How that affects the Catalans is open to debate, but as Chelsea have shown, the great teams reload after triumphs.

Could it be that the unfancied Londoners are actually this year’s favorites after all?