Chelsea dealings lead to new focus
Not for the first time, Chelsea’s reaction to the discovery of a winning formula has been to change it. Roman Abramovich, the west London club’s super-rich owner, did just that when he began interfering with – and eventually lost - the special coaching style of Jose Mourinho after consecutive English titles had been secured in 2005 and 2006.
Yet, there have been few complaints about the new direction taken by the first-time European champions since their triumph over Bayern Munich less than three months ago, when Abramovich added the trophy he coveted most to the Stamford Bridge collection.
Chelsea won that Champions League final – having succeeded against even greater odds against Barcelona in the semifinals – with an essentially cautious, defense-oriented approach. It seemed to defer not only to the class of the opposition but to Roberto Di Matteo’s knowledge that his team had finished a moderate sixth in the Barclays Premier League, a long way behind Manchester City (though they had improved since Di Matteo took over from the sacked Andre Villas-Boas by lifting the FA Cup).
The tactics of prudence worked for them when Didier Drogba headed in a glorious equalizer then helped to win a penalty shootout. But, while taking that trophy fulfilled one of the Russian’s ambitions, winning gritty was never the way of his dreams. Like pretty well everyone else outside of Madrid, he craves the Barcelona manner of victory with a flourish – as had been demonstrated a year earlier with the Catalans’ beautiful annihilation of Manchester United at Wembley.
So, almost as soon as the still-formidable veteran Drogba had left Chelsea to collect a final windfall in Shanghai, in came some guys nearer the size of Barcelona’s midfield magicians Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta; Eden Hazard, the Belgian technician, Marko Marin from Germany, and Oscar from Brazil. Hazard, the 21-year-old Belgian midfielder, had been linked with Premier League rivals Manchester United and Manchester City, but was eventually persuaded to join the Blues after their Champions League final victory over Bayern Munich.
''It's true that initially there were a number of clubs in for me but when Chelsea won the Champions League, I thought why not?'' Hazard said. ''By anybody's standards, winning two cups is a great achievement, so it will be a big challenge to do better.''
These players have joined a squad that includes Spanish midfielder Juan Mata, whose skills had done much to keep the Bridge entertained on his debut season, in supplying and supporting Fernando Torres. Fans and Abramovich, who had sanctioned a club record $75 million outlay on him, hope the former Liverpool striker has been reborn following Spain’s retention of the European Championship during the summer.
The first semi-serious test came on Sunday. Each year, when England’s leading clubs have finished their pre-season globetrotting, the Premier League and FA Cup winners meet on neutral ground – Villa Park in Birmingham on this occasion, due to Wembley’s staging of the Olympic final the previous day – in the traditional curtain-raiser.
At first all went promisingly well for Chelsea, with Torres changing feet nicely to beat Manchester City’s reserve goalkeeper, Costel Pantilimon. Then Branislav Ivanovic was sent off for a dangerous tackle and City took ruthless advantage of the 10 men in the second half, with Yaya Toure, Carlos Tevez and Samir Nasri scoring superb goals before the barely employed Pantilimon fumbled a rare Chelsea shot and substitute Ryan Bertand made it 3-2.
The defensive options include a switch for David Luiz, who partnered John Terry in the middle at Villa Park, and a further incursion into the market before the summer window closes; Chelsea have already been pursuing the Spanish right-back Cesar Azpilicueta, of Olympique Marseille.
It is a little early, then, to be forming judgments about the new Chelsea. Oscar was absent, no doubt mentally replaying the moment when he missed a late header that should have sent Brazil’s Olympic final against Mexico into extra time – he was otherwise quite impressive – and Marin also remains on the fringe. The expensive Hazard did play for 70 minutes but never really made a mark on the game, and was booed by City fans for appearing to go down too easily under a challenge.
As for Torres, who will be given a chance to lead the attack regularly now that Drogba has gone, he will probably never have the Ivorian’s verve on the ball. Everything now depends on the service Mata and company can give him.
To expect Chelsea to become England’s answer to Barcelona in a matter of months would be ridiculous. To expect Mata and Hazard to become Premier League versions of Xavi and Iniesta would be a lot too, when there are more convincing candidates in Manchester in the admittedly ageing Paul Scholes of United and David Silva of City. But they should be easier on the eye this season than has been the case for several years and already a huge plus has emerged from the influx of young talent, with veteran Frank Lampard in a more restrained role that could prolong his career.
"I think what's most important now is to integrate the new players into the side," Di Matteo said. "Obviously, bringing in players with different abilities and qualities might change the face of our team a little bit as well. But we have to always find the right balance between attacking and defending."
He looks very good in it too. So don’t bet on Di Matteo’s men for more trophies just yet - but they are definitely a team to watch.