FM

Feb 282014
 

The first legs of all the last 16 matches in the Champions League have now been played and we are starting to get a clearer idea of which teams might well be heading for glory in Lisbon in May. It proved to be a surprisingly fruitful round of games for the away teams with six of the eight first leg matches won by the travelling team, in convincing fashion.  Those six teams are now firmly in the driving seat to qualify for the quarter-finals while there was just the one home victory and the one draw in the latest round of matches.

There is no doubt that performance of the round came from Real Madrid as they demolished Schalke in Germany to all but secure their place in the last eight with a 6-1 victory. Real put on a startling display of attacking football with Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema all scoring twice as they routinely brushed aside a decent Schalke side at home. It was a breath-taking display from Carlo Ancelotti’s men and with their progress now safe even before the return leg, they have been cut from 5/1 into 4/1 for the Champions League betting outright.

It has been a difficult round of Champions League fixtures for the English teams with only Chelsea avoiding defeat in the first leg as they drew 1-1 away against Galatasary. Arsenal were beaten 2-0 at home by defending Champions, Bayern Munich, after they had their keeper sent off and asking the Gunners to overturn a two deficit in Germany is surely going to be a bridge too far. The same can be said for Man City who also lost 2-0 at home in their match with Barcelona which has left them with a mountain to climb if they are to make the last eight for the first time.

City and Arsenal can perhaps be forgiven for their defeats against top opposition but it was Man United who suffered the most when it came to the Champions League over the past couple of weeks. The United players produced a limp performance as they lost 2-0 in Greece to Olympiakos and are now faced with a tough ask to qualify, despite initially appearing to have a very favourable draw on paper. It was the latest in a string of poor performances from United who are in danger of slipping out of the Champions League for the first time given their current league position. United will now have to come back from a 2-0 deficit in Europe for the first time in 30 years and while it is not out of the question, there is no doubt they will need to play a whole lot better at Old Trafford.

Real Madrid, Bayern and Barcelona may have stolen most of the headlines during the first legs of the last 16 but one team that continues to make stealthy progress is Atletico Madrid. The Spanish side came away from the San Siro with a 1-0 win against AC Milan and they are now hot favourites to progress given that away goal. Diego Simeone has been working wonders in the Spanish capital this season and Atletico are likely to attract plenty of backers over the next few days, with a price of 12/1 likely to appeal to each-way punters in the current Champions League winners market.

The other two teams to have taken the upper hand in the first legs of their last 16 matches are PSG and Dortmund who both managed to score four goals away from home. PSG were perhaps the most impressive as they beat Bayer Leverkusen 4-0 in Germany with Zlatan Ibrahimovich once again causing havoc for the Ligue 1 side. PSG have been a popular alternative to the market leaders in the Champions League outright betting all season and are now as short as 10/1 to win the trophy which looks a fair price. Dortmund have not been quite the same force this season as they were last, but nevertheless they are set for the quarter-finals after beating Zenit 4-2 in Russia in their first leg match.

Much of the interest in the second legs of the last 16 will focus on Man United looking to overhaul Olympiakos, while Chelsea are expected to overcome Galatasary at Stamford Bridge in the other finely poised tie. There is no doubt whatsoever though that it is Real Madrid who have taken the eye in this latest round of matches with many now starting to believe that Los Blancos can finally claim their 10th European Cup victory. They have a coach in Carlo Ancelotti that has tasted success in the competition as both a player and a coach, while their front three of Ronaldo, Bale and Benzema is bang in-form as we head into the business end of the campaign.

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Jan 132014
 

So it has come to that point in the season again that every fan absolutely hates loves: the hallowed January transfer window. Not since the days of Chelsea’s fateful Fernando Torres signing has anything of note happened in January. Nevertheless, Sky Sport’s incessant ramping up of the final day has almost become a day of celebration in itself. Millions of people sitting in front of a rolling news station waiting for something that is likely to have broken on Twitter 45 minutes beforehand. The joy.

My contempt for the SkySportsification™ of the transfer window aside, January can often be a place to find crucial squad depth for the final push towards the Premier League title (or to avoid relegation). After two years of relative obscurity, from a Chelsea perspective, this finally feels like the club are back in the thick of things. With that being said there are certain holes that Chelsea could look to fill that would at the very least guarantee them a serious shot at landing the Premier League.

Chelsea’s current defensive situation is far from ideal, but definitely serviceable until the end of the season. While more quality in the full-back area and centre-back should be sought it can at least wait until the summer. I would be surprised to see any departures here and no club is likely to be able to afford the price Chelsea were reportedly quoting for David Luiz in the summer.

Into midfield is where things become interesting. The long-term injury to Marco van Ginkel is incredibly unfortunate given the potential playing time he would have had this season. Michael Essien may not be sold this January, but his days are sadly numbered at Chelsea. David Luiz can be used as an auxiliary midfielder, which bolsters numbers to five, but one serious injury could leave Chelsea with two recognised central players able to play twice a week comfortably.

The mooted options appear to be resigning Nemanja Matić or bidding for Fredy Guarín. Matić is an interesting case having already been at the club for some time but not quite getting the chance. For the reported fee Chelsea could be better served waiting until the summer, however, this transfer rumour does appear to be gathering pace with a formal bid submitted. Matić has fantastic ability and the only minor concern surrounding him will be how quickly he can adapt to the tempo of the Premier League. If he settles well then he slots in alongside Ramires or Mikel to provide a perfect foil and physical edge. A great distributor, powerful and an impressive ball winner he is the type of player Chelsea have missed since Michael Ballack’s departure.

VerdictIf this is the only money to be spent on a midfielder in the next year then I would wait until the summer and push for Vidal. However, this is a position of great need and it is not a stretch to say it could push Chelsea towards a serious title challenge. If Chelsea are going to further add to the central midfield area at the end of the season then Matić represents a great signing.

Guarín has absolutely no interest in joining the club and Chelsea appear poles apart with Inter in their valuation. This is certainly a blessing in disguise. Guarín has played more times as a striker this season than in holding midfield and despite having a fantastic engine offers little that Ramires cannot replicate. He is not the box-to-box destroyer that Chelsea so desperately seek, nor is he above a merely average-to-good midfielder.

Verdict – avoid the signing – signing another body just to have another body is a silly way to go about spending money.

Matić is the only player worth investing in, but even he is not the panacea to Chelsea’s midfield issues. If the £30m fee is to be believed (other sources say £21m) then are Chelsea better off waiting until the summer and targeting someone like Vidal, Pogba etc? The quandary remains that Chelsea are desperate for another person in midfield but with the January premium and other factors, i.e. are they cup tied, the right midfielder is scarce. A future midfield quartet of Matić, Mikel, Ramires and van Ginkel represents the type of power Mourinho likes, but there needs to be someone more technical in the box-to-box bracket for that to become a special group.

If Mourinho’s words are true, that Chelsea are targeting three significant signings this summer, then the need to find elite quality perhaps diminishes somewhat. My preferred option is to look closer at home and use someone like Nathaniel Chalobah as a rotation option. After an excellent campaign at Watford he has stagnated at Nottingham Forest under 3rd person referring Billy Davies. Chalobah is comfortable in midfield and will likely raise his game with the quality of players around him. This, however, is highly unlikely and some newspapers are suggesting that Guarin will also be signed in addition to Matić.

The other obvious area of improvement can be seen in Chelsea’s centre forward options. It is a miracle and testament to Mourinho that Chelsea are so well positioned with such a mediocre set of strikers. People can bleat on about Romelu Lukaku’s absence for as long as they like but the reality is that while the Belgian is certainly a better option than current incumbents he has a plethora of things to work on to make him suited to Mourinho’s team. He should improve his link-up play and ability to play with this back to goal. Working within tight spaces and developing his footwork to deal with intricate build up is another must. All, hopefully, are improving under Roberto Martínez’s exceptional coaching.

All signs point to Demba Ba leaving the club in January after an underwhelming stint. Ba certainly works hard but lacks the consistent quality to assert himself as a first choice striker. With Ba’s departure Chelsea have Fernando Torres and Samuel Eto’o to rely upon for the foreseeable future. Given the age of the latter and the erratic play of the former Chelsea must surely be looking to reinforce this area in January. While André Schürrle can play as a makeshift centre forward, a club competing on three fronts over the coming months cannot solely rely upon two players to remain in form and healthy.

The rumours surrounding a bid for Wayne Rooney persist, but given Manchester United’s form of late is losing their talisman something they are going to entertain? Rooney is certainly from a stylistic standpoint the profile of striker Chelsea should be looking to buy. He has the ability to link play, works incredibly hard and would fit seamlessly into a side that would allow him to play to his strengths.

It could very well be that Rooney is desperate for a change of scenery and that playing under Mourinho could completely reinvigorate his career. That is not to say that he has not been a fantastic performer this season, but Mourinho would take Rooney to a level that Moyes could never envisage. There is always a fear factor in signing high profile strikers at Chelsea. The money tied up in signing Rooney, now in his late 20s, would be astronomical – potentially the highest paid player in a squad full of high paid players and a transfer fee approaching £40m. If Rooney were in his mid-20s this would be an easy decision, but more thought needs to go into this.

My outside the box suggestion would be to make a loan move for Radamel Falcao. Chelsea, unquestionably, missed a trick in the summer by not signing Falcao or Edison Cavani. Yes, elite strikers cost a lot of money, but the effect they have on a team cannot be ignored. Van Persie essentially papered over much of this season’s United form and delivered a league title (I am being somewhat facetious here). The damage that Falcao or Cavani would have causes spearheading the Chelsea frontline this season is catastrophic.

There are more than one account of Falcao’s unhappiness to be read on the internet concerning his time in Monaco. A move purely for money has seemingly backfired as he has taken such a backwards step in his career. He would certainly jump at the opportunity to play in the Premier League, Champions League and under Mourinho. A loan fee and paying a sizeable portion of his wages would surely be enough to capture the Colombian for the remainder of the season. Nevertheless, a long term solution must be sought in the summer. Diego Costa appears a fine player with many Mourinho-esque characteristics and someone I would like to see the club move for. Nevertheless, Atletico are in the hunt for the title for the first time in a while and I would find it strange if they considered bids or he wanted to move in January with a World Cup approaching.

Prediction* – Demba Ba (50/50), Michael Essien (if not now, then the summer) and Kevin De Bruyne depart (£25-£30m). Chelsea sign Guarín or Matić. Chelsea do not sign a striker – they will not think of a loan move for Falcao, Rooney will prove too costly and Manchester United will definitely not want to sell him and Diego Costa is unlikely to move in this window. Juan Mata does not leave the club.

HopesChelsea agree a fee in January to sign Luke Shaw and Kurt Zouma in the summer. Both players return to their clubs on loan for the remainder of the season.

* I am hopeless at predictions.

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Dec 232013
 

“…there is an idea of a [Andre Villas-Boas], some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable: I simply am not there.

My conscience, my pity, my hopes disappeared a long time ago (probably at [Porto]) if they ever did exist. There are no more barriers to cross. All I have in common with the uncontrollable and the insane, the vicious and the [Daily Mail], all the mayhem I have caused and my utter indifference toward it, I have now surpassed.”

Yes, that is me shamelessly plagiarising and selectively misquoting Bret Easton Ellis. The above passage is taken from the author’s popular novel, American Psycho – a tale of a young, handsome male protagonist whose outward professional but ultimately superficial successes belie the troubled psyche of a man struggling to truly fit in to his surroundings…

On Monday morning, as most football fans were settling down to watch the draw for the Champions League, Tottenham Hotspur released a statement on their website confirming that Andre Villas-Boas had left the club after just a little under 18 months. A humiliating 5-0 home defeat to a rampant Liverpool side less than 24 hours earlier proved to be the last straw in what has been perceived to be a campaign of underachievement thus far.

When Andre Villas-Boas arrived at White Hart Lane last summer, there was an understandable sense of optimism. Here was a man with barely any experience in the game yet a reputation already enhanced thanks to his unprecedented levels of success during his one full season managing Porto back in his home land. An all too brief spell at Chelsea did relatively little to harm him flourishing reputation before he was appointed to replace Harry Redknapp last July.

The mission statement from the Tottenham hierarchy would have clearly been a top four finish and the Champions League qualification that comes with it. Villas-Boas ended his first season in North London achieving the club’s record points haul in the Premier League, securing a first Spurs victory at Old Trafford in 23 years as well as a quarter final appearance in the Europa League.
However, after missing out on that elusive fourth spot by a single point, things took a slight turn at the start of this season. A 6-0 embarrassment at Manchester City might have been written off as a bad day at the office but with Sunday’s result coming so soon after, the Portuguese was forced to fall on his sword – this despite sitting in seventh place, above current champions Manchester United, and a mere eight points off the top of the table.

Villas-Boas team were also in the quarter finals of the League Cup and boasted a 100% record in the Europa League group stage so one might argue that he has been hard done by. A few disappointing results aside, Spurs were hardly in a state of disarray. One wonders if this was just another rash decision by Daniel Levy (a man who rarely shows patience when he believes a manager is under-performing) or whether it had something to do with Villas Boas himself.

Having initially begun his own career in management working under Jose Mourinho, the lazy but understandable comparisons could not be avoided. We’ve already seen one young, talented manager come out of Portugal, so the next one must surely be exactly the same right? Both won numerous trophies with Porto and the similarities hardly stopped there, either. Neither had any playing career of their own to speak of and both cite the influence the late, great Sir Bobby Robson had on them during their formative years. On the surface, it looked as though Villas-Boas was simply trying to emulate his old boss.

This wasn’t the case however. As a result, Villas-Boas wanted to establish his own identity; particularly after reportedly falling out with Mourinho after deciding to go his own way. Despite following in his footsteps by leaving Porto to join Chelsea, there then a quite deliberate attempt to distance himself from his one-time mentor. While the ‘Special One’ was all about bravado, charisma and charm, Villas Boas came across as more calculated, thoughtful and sombre. The thinking man’s Mourinho if you will.

The contrast in personality inevitably led to a contrast in management styles. While Mourinho would develop close bonds with his team and created a ‘family’ environment, Villas Boas was more concerned in establishing his position as boss. As a previous member of Mourinho’s Chelsea staff, there may have been the feeling that he was something of a subordinate to the players, so now he had to make it clear he was in charge. Consequently, he ended up alienating the club’s senior pros and ultimately lost the dressing room. This led to his departure from Stamford Bridge after less than nine months in charge.

If we’re going to stick to the theme of comparing managers, Villas-Boas’ tumultuous spell at Chelsea could arguably be compared to Brian Clough’s disastrous 44-day reign in change of Leeds United way back when. Ok, I suspect the Portuguese manager didn’t demand Lampard et al throw their previously acquired medals in the bin, but a new manager coming in and immediately trying to change the dynamic within a team that is used to winning, is more often than not going to find himself on a hiding to nothing. Villas-Boas, like Clough, suffered from top players’ unwillingness to buy in to his philosophy and subsequently found himself victim of a mutiny, making his position untenable.

The unfortunate conclusion to be drawn here was that despite his almost aggressive attempt to try and prove otherwise, Villas-Boas looked very much as though he couldn’t handle big players or big egos. That said, a short spell at a volatile club where even success cannot guarantee job security shouldn’t really be used to define a man’s managerial capabilities.

Certainly, it did not deter Daniel Levy from entrusting him with the reigns of an already improving Spurs side with the task of taking them forward. Under Harry Redknapp, the team had already qualified for Champions League once and would have done so again but for the cruelest twist of fate as the very same Chelsea side Villas-Boas was sacked from months earlier, actually ended up winning Europe’s Premier competition.

Redknapp had already raised Tottenham up a level during his tenure and the belief was that Villas-Boas would be the man to help them make that final leap to join the elite. However, many people didn’t see it that way. Redknapp’s controversial departure from White Hart Lane did not sit well with the media – an industry which, it has been well documented, he had many supporters. This meant that his replacement, whoever it may be, would be in for a rough ride.

Now, as we’ve established. Villas-Boas is not exactly a media darling. If anything, his demeanour towards the press seemed to suggest he saw them as something of an inconvenience or a nuisance that somehow impeded him from doing his job. At Chelsea, he was seen as distant, standoffish and even confrontational. In some ways, not too dissimilar to Sir Alex Ferguson who was renowned for his brazen approach to banning any journalist who did or said anything he disagreed with.

Couple this with the obvious affection for his predecessor in N17, and it led to situations where Villas Boas was being undermined before he had even unpacked his bags. Articles speculated about his future less than a month into his tenure and one sage scribe even went so far as to compare him to Ricky Gervais’ clownish office manager from the popular TV comedy series The Office.
Villas Boas kept his cool and led his side to within a hair’s breadth of Champions League qualification. But still the barbs came after an indifferent start to his second campaign. Sustained attacks following the City defeat even led to the unedifying spectacle of Villas-Boas publicly quarreling with the Daily Mail’s Neil Ashton in the middle of a press conference.

Being unpopular isn’t a problem if you are getting results and for a while he was. Last year, with Gareth Bale as his talisman, the Portuguese had Spurs playing an attractive brand of attacking football. Unfortunately, with the loss of Bale to Madrid and a number of subsequent changes in personnel, that style and more importantly, goals seemed to have deserted them. The rebuilding process not quite yet achieving desired results as players still needed time to gel.

Villas-Boas does leave Tottenham with a 53% win ratio – the best of any Spurs manager in the Premier League era and second best in the club’s history. This, after a similar stuttering start to last season. In fact, Tottenham are one point better off this year than at the same stage 12 months ago, so Levy’s decision may perhaps have been a bit premature. It would hardly be the craziest suggestion to grant the man a bit of time to see if this poor spell is just a blip or not – especially given the fact you’ve backed him to the tune of £100m in transfers just a few months prior.
However, with two hammerings in such close proximity, the spats with journalists and an obvious drop in the quality of football, the chairman felt it necessary to take action. Whether Villas-Boas would have turned things around given time, we’ll now never know. Instead, he leaves North London a looking like a failure.

There was once this wonderful idea of Andre Villas-Boas. Something new, something completely different to what we were used to before. Studious, young, vibrant, full of his own ideas and not necessary conforming to the typical model of manager English football was used to. Possessing a strong sense of self belief that could be mistaken for arrogance, the lack of charm that accompanied it laid bare a no nonsense attitude that didn’t quite sit well with many over here. His unashamed openness and honesty, rather than working to his advantage, ended up being the catalyst for his downfall; something that, for whatever reason, he was unable to redress. He walks away seemingly having lost something quite significant from when he arrived in England. As it is, it appears that the idea of Villas-Boas was somewhat better than the reality.

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Nov 092013
 

Chelsea were losing 2-1 at home to West Brom this afternoon until Ramires dived in added time to win his side a penalty. Eden Hazard scored it to save Chelsea’s embarrassment and keep Mourinho’s home record in tact.

Whilst some Chelsea fans have pointed to there being contact, it is clear from the replays that Ramires throws himself in to Steven Reid before going to ground.

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Nov 092013
 

Chelsea were moments away from deservedly losing to West Brom at home this afternoon, meaning Jose Mourinho would lose his impressive home record with the blues, until Ramires dived deep in to injury time and was awarded a penalty.

Just last month, Mourinho was very critical of players who dived.

“I have told the players many times, I hate it. It is very bad,” Mourinho said. “I haven’t dropped a player because of it, but being strong and critical, I did it, yes. I spoke about it with Drogba and Robben. I am not saying I will drop someone. Maybe the player is very important for me and makes a mistake and maybe I don’t drop him. But I will strongly criticise him, yes. And if one day I win the game where I feel one of my players didn’t behave correctly, I will say it.”

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Sep 192013
 
Emenalo_Abramovich

One of my key concerns heading into this season surrounded the top heavy investment the club made during the summer. Willian and Schürrle are decent purchases but there were certainly more pressing issues at hand. (A quick note on Schürrle: has it become de rigueur to slate a new signing based on a handful of games? Our ‘support’ becomes more and more like Arsenal every day – it really needs to stop. By all means criticise a performance, but he has not even played in his preferred position yet).

For several years we have lacked a midfielder capable of running a game from deep. Our pursuit of Modriç suggests that the club have realised this has been a problem: our initial bid of £40m was rejected on 30th August 2011. Nevertheless, the club identified an inherent weakness in the squad and subsequently allowed five transfer windows to pass without signing someone of this particular ilk. There are players of a similar quality to Modriç that have been available in the four windows since this bid. Do we try and then just acquiesce once the bid never results in an offer being accepted?

If the club were willing to spend £40m to solve the problem you could fairly assume that it is a priority. You could reel off a list of names of midfielders who could play this role perfectly. I am certain that given our transfer budget this summer Mourinho would have wanted someone to fulfil this role. Alas, we have known for quite some time now that our manager has very little input in the transfer process.

The blindingly obvious issue has actually become so blindingly obvious as to have seemingly blinded anyone making decisions from acting. How have we started a season with this set of strikers? Who thought this was a good idea? Manchester United will never sell Wayne Rooney to us. It actually felt like the club wanted to publicly look as if they were doing something knowing all along that it would never happen: “at least we tried, eh?”

Our level of finishing was atrocious against Everton. To register over twenty attempts at goal with less than five hitting the target is frankly abysmal. Eto’o, at thirty-two, showed more movement and desire than any of our forwards has done for seasons. Lacking in top level sharpness and fitness he looked a class apart from Torres and Ba. This is what is has come down to for the club.

Torres will no doubt see out the rest of his two and a half years on his contract. That is something that the club cannot keep ignoring. They took a gamble on Torres that has spectacularly backfired; he now ties the clubs hands in several ways. We cannot sell Torres as he will never see anywhere near the sort of money he is on currently. A loan also seems to be unlikely at this point in his career for several reasons. The less said about Ba the better.

With Hazard, Mata, De Bruyne, Oscar and Moses we could certainly have coped this season without additions. The £80m spent this summer should unequivocally have yielded a top tier striker and a central midfielder capable of playing that box-to-box role we have coveted for two years. How do you therefore judge the work Emenalo is doing? Clearly some excellent young players have been bought, but if the composition of the squad falls on someone surely it is him.

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Sep 172013
 
Oscar, Eden Hazard and Juan Mata

Chelsea’s lack of fluidity in midfield is becoming increasingly alarming. While I cannot doubt the engine and work rate of Ramires, his ability on the ball is not good enough to command the ball playing space in Chelsea’s double pivot. If we are going to persist with playing this shape then Mourinho must make a call about who partners John Obi Mikel.

Mikel proved against Everton, for all his detractors, that he is without question Chelsea’s best option as the defensively minded player in that role. Regardless of how he plays for Nigeria and the potential he has to develop his game at Chelsea, his role is unlikely to change. What must happen is playing someone next to him with the ability to take the game forward and dictate matters when in possession.

The obvious solution is Oscar. He is the only player currently to have shown the ability to influence play consistently from deep. I have spoken at length on this here, but his ability to play on the half-turn, dribble through midfield and look forward has been sorely lacking. Yes, he is playing very well in an advanced role but there is much to be said about his creativity from deep.

The other options are to introduce Marco van Ginkel into the first team picture. I can only imagine that he is getting acclimatised to the pace of things in England, but of all our true central midfielders he was most impressive during preseason. Granted the “it’s only preseason brigade” will probably be out in full force, but pulling the strings against a very strong Real Madrid side is no mean feat.

He is aggressive in the tackle, has a wonderful perception of space both in attack and defence, his use of the ball for someone his age is incisive and he has the physical characteristics to impose himself on opposing midfielders. Ramires is certainly the better athlete, but van Ginkel in my opinion is both a better tackler and distributor.

The other option is slightly more of a risk but in Kevin De Bruyne Chelsea have a potential midfield maestro on their hands. In terms of his skillset De Bruyne already has much of what you would want from a modern central midfielder. His range of passing is exquisite, he can carry the play through the central midfield, he has excellent balance and dribbling ability, but most importantly he can dictate the flow of a game. You only need to catch a glimpse of some of his play for Werder Bremen last season to see that he can influence proceedings centrally.

Things get slightly more complicated when looking at the balance in our attacking trio. While Eden Hazard is leading the league in chances created (or a better way to look at it is passes that lead to shots) he has been quiet by his end of year standards. A lot of this is down to teams now deploying at least two players on him as soon as he comes into possession. Cole, Ramires and whoever is playing in the number ten spot need to give him options quicker. He cannot skip past 2-3 players every time he touches the ball.

The fluidity of our front three is something that should be helped by either starting Kevin De Bruyne or Willian on the right hand side. People seem to forget that despite Schürrle being right footed, he is very much someone who is used to playing on the left hand side. His natural movement is always to come inside and shoot, not to attack the line and cross. De Bruyne gave natural balance against Hull and Willian is equally capable of playing on the right or left. We need someone to offer a threat on the opposite flank to Eden Hazard, if only to give the Belgian more opportunities to receive the ball in space.

The Oscar or Mata debate is something that seems to be an ongoing question that needs resolving. While Oscar has undoubtedly started very bright in his preferred role, we have missed the mercurial and talismanic qualities of an in-form Juan Mata. Oscar can certainly be an effective outlet out wide, at a push, but also in a deeper role. Mata, conversely, is more capable of playing centrally than as a winger. Balancing our side and actually playing our best players is something that seems a very difficult task to achieve if Oscar continues to play in an advanced role. The right hand berth is Willian’s or De Bruyne’s as things stand. Schürrle should primarily be used as an alternative to Eden Hazard and not on the opposite flank.

Nevertheless the persistent issue at the club is converting chances. If we have looked at Eto’o as our answer in the short-term why on earth did we deem Drogba past his best? I do not buy into the sentimentality answer of “his last kick” – he would still be the best striker at the club now. We are going to live and die by our finishing ability this season. Everton was not our best performance but we could easily have had three or four goals by the time they scored. Our finishing cost us against Bayern as well and we had a few half chances at Old Trafford that we did very little with. Unless our speed of transition changes or our finishing drastically improves this could be quite a slow season for Chelsea fans.

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Aug 312013
 

When Romelu Lukaku signed for Chelsea he claimed that it was a dream come true. He was only a teenager and idolised Didier Drogba, so getting to play at Stamford Bridge was as good as it got for the Belgian.

Lukaku spent the majority of his first season playing for the Reserves but still managed 12 games for the first team, even if he didn’t manage to score.

In his second season, he was loaned out to West Brom where he thrived. He scored 17 goals in 38 games, as well as bagging 4 assists, and was hugely popular with the fans. He kissed the West Brom badge and was in his element, but always reiterated his desire to return to Chelsea.

So far this season, Lukaku has featured in 3 of the 4 games that Chelsea have played, coming on for the last 15 minutes against Hull before playing 25 minutes against Aston Villa, before playing against Bayern Munich.

However, when Chelsea made the journey to Old Trafford, Jose Mourinho opted to start the match with no recognised strikers and when he did decide to bring one on, it was Fernando Torres.

In last night’s game against Bayern Munich in the UEFA Super Cup final, Lukaku again started the game on the bench. After a 1-1 draw, Lukaku was brought on in extra time to play the last 20 minutes of the game.

After the German side took the game to penalties with the last kick of the ball, Lukaku was named amongst the penalty takers. Experienced players like Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole were amongst those named, and both scored, yet it was the inexperience Lukaku, who’s never scored for the club, who was given the responsibility of the 5th penalty.

When Chelsea won the European Cup in 2012, it was Dider Drogba who was trusted with the final penalty, and it was a tactic that proved successful. But Lukaku is no Drogba, even if he is billed to one day emulate him, and you have to wonder why Mourinho opted to put Lukaku in that situation.

The striker crumbled under the pressure, firing a tame penalty in the direction of Manuel Neuer, leaving the German with an easy save to make. As soon as he started his run up you could tell he was going to miss. He certainly didn’t have the strut of Didier Drogba from a year ago.

Whilst this trophy is not a priority for Chelsea, it is still silverware, and silverware they missed out on last season after winning the Champions League. Lukaku now has 15 Chelsea appearances to his name, still no goals, and now is the player responsible for costing them a trophy. Did John Terry not fancy another European penalty shoot out? Did Mourinho genuinely believe, having barely given him a go this season, that Lukaku was the best player to deal with this pressure? The decision making certainly seems strange.

Mourinho pays the price though, with yet another victory for Pep Guardiola, and an opportunity to add to his trophy haul missed.

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Aug 262013
 

Manchester United vs Chelsea – 8.00pm

As David Moyes prepares for his first home game in charge, he has much to ponder ahead of the Special One’s visit to Old Trafford. The Glaswegian opted to leave England striker Wayne Rooney on the bench, but it will be hard for Moyes to do so again. As, following the opening weekend, Rooney leads the assist charts with 2 goal-scoring passes. According to the EA Sports Player Performance Index, only Manchester City’s Edin Dzeko matches Rooney. However he played the full 90 minutes rather than the 28 Rooney featured in.

On the other hand, Danny Welbeck has managed to double his Premier League goal-scoring tally from last season after only one game. He also appears to have upped his shooting accuracy as according to the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index, he managed to hit the target with every one of his 3 shots. This was in contrast to Cardiff’s Peter Whittingham who failed to find the target with every one of his 4 shots.

Michael Carrick has been widely regarded as one of England’s most underrated midfielders. His ability to sit in the middle of the park is demonstrated by the 6 interceptions he made against Swansea, only Tottenham’s Etience Capoue managed to match him in the first round of games.

He may have had his critics last year, but perhaps David De Gea is starting to fulfill his undoubted potential. The 5 saves he made were the most of any keeper who finished on the winning side.

Frank Lampard may have been close to leaving Stamford Bridge last year, but on the back of his performance at the weekend it seems that Chelsea will miss his ability to find the target. Both he and Edin Dezko hit the target 4 times, more than any other player.

Lampard also managed to swing in the third most crosses on the opening weekend. Inevitably, Leighton Baines topped the crosses category with 5.

Youngster Kevin de Bruyne could learn a lesson or two from the experienced Englishman, as despite having three attempts at goal, he failed to find the target once.

Jose Mourinho’s previous Chelsea team received criticism over their style of play – with many critics labeling them as a team based on pragmatism rather than attacking flair. However, according to EA SPORTS Player Performance Index, Chelsea had four players in the top twenty passers in the league. Collectively, Oscar (37), Ramires (37), Hazard (36) and Lampard (35) sprayed the ball about in the opposition half, with only Everton matching the Europa League Champions.

Chelsea must be hoping that Eden Hazard maintains his fine form in- front of goal, as defensively he hasn’t had the best of luck. The EA SPORTS Player Performance index shows that of his 6 attempted challenges, he missed 4 of them.

Be sure to keep up with the action as it all unfolds via DirecTV on NBC Sports

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Aug 232013
 

March 31st 2011: Willian linked with moves to Chelsea and Barcelona. Both Carlo Ancelotti and Pep Guardiola were reportedly keen to sign him after scoring twice in Shakhtar Donetsk’s 3-0 second leg success over Roma in the Champions League last 16 game.

April 13th 2011: “Willian would be perfect for Arsenal,” said Denilson (Arsenal player). “I know him well from the Brazil youth team and he had a real winning mentality then. I’ve heard Chelsea are interested, but his character could improve our team and his style would fit much better at Arsenal. We need match-winners at Arsenal and knowing what he does for Shakhtar and the national team I know he could do the same in England. He has great vision and ability and is one of the best creative players I have played with. I’ve spoken to him and told him that he could be a success with us.”

January 23rd 2012: “Willian is a very interesting player, but he is cup tied in the Champions League,” said Andre Villas-Boas (Chelsea manager). “I don’t think we should go for players who cannot be involved in all the competitions. We are not stressed regarding what we can do in this transfer window. If a good opportunity arises, we could study it, but at the moment, we are very satisfied.”

January 23rd 2012: “We have no burning desire to sell the player, but in football some things are impossible to avoid,” said Sergei Palkin (Shakhtar CEO). “If it weren’t for our good relationship with Chelsea – and Willian does not hide his intention to test himself in one of the best clubs in the English Premier League – we would insist on the £29m release clause written into the player’s contract. It is important to understand that we are talking about Chelsea’s desire to buy Willian, but not Shakhtar’s desire to sell him.”

January 24th 2012: “We have received a bid from Chelsea for Willian valued at €20million, but he is not for sale,” said Palkin.

January 26th 2012: “I wouldn’t have any fears about coming to England because I have played against English sides in the Champions League and studied the English game,” said Willian. “To play in a league that is seen throughout the world would be good for my hopes of playing regularly for Brazil, especially with the World Cup at home in two years’ time. That is my aim. I’ve worked hard for four years to establish myself in the national team. It has taken that long but now I feel I have a good relationship with the coach and I want to keep working hard, so I remain in the side. There are times when you look at your life and realise how lucky you’ve been. I’ve played for a great club in Corinthians and been successful. I moved to Shakhtar and that turned into a great move too. There was talk about Barcelona and Arsenal before but now Chelsea are interested. If the next step of the adventure is England, then I would be excited by that. I have friends in the Brazil side who play for Chelsea, like David and Ramires. All they talk about is the thrill of being in a city like London and playing for a club like Chelsea. I’ve known David since we played together in the Brazil Under-20 side and he talks about what Villas-Boas is trying to build at Chelsea. He and Ramires feel he wants a core of young players who can mature and grow together but also be successful. David says how the coach takes a real interest in all his players, how he can adapt different cultures together and bring the best out of them. Then obviously there is life in London. David and Ramires say there’s nothing like it anywhere else in the world – it’s exciting and challenging at the same time.”

July 18th 2012: “I told Willian he can leave, but only if the right offer is made,” said Shakhtar Donetsk manager Mircea Lucescu. “He’s a great player. Willian was the biggest investment Shakhtar have made in a young player, we have to respect that. He played only seven or eight games in Brazil. They paid a lot of money for Hazard but are not willing to pay for Willian, even though he’s better in my opinion. Chelsea want to buy Brazilian but made an offer for the eastern European market. They offered €34million but we don’t think that’s his current value.”

July 20th 2012: “I don’t know what the coach said, but the correct value was €25million,” said Willian. “But regardless of the value, of course I really wanted to play for a club like Chelsea, a club that won the Champions League. I’m really annoyed that the board didn’t let me go. It would have been good for me and for the club too. I’d play in a big league and would be able to grow as a player. This is not a message to anyone, everyone knows I want to leave. Chelsea had already reached an agreement regarding Oscar when they made that last offer to sign me. I’m sure it won’t be a problem as we are different kinds of players. He is more like a playmaker and I am more like an attacking midfielder. But it’s a matter of waiting. A lot can still happen.”

August 25th 2012: “I have the offer but it’s complicated because of the board,” said Willian. “Everyone knows that I want to leave. I’ve been here for five years, I’ve won many titles, so I hope they respect my will. I don’t regret having come here, but I regret what’s been going on with this situation. Chelsea tried to sign me, now Tottenham, so I have to rethink.”

August 27th 2012: Shakhtar Donetsk reject a £11.8million bid from Tottenham for Willian.

October 23rd 2012: “Willian was far away from Chelsea,” said Lucescu. “They didn’t even get anywhere near to our requirements, having done nothing to make my promises to Willian come true. Speaking specifically about the amounts, they officially offered the sum for which we had bought him young. I would really like them to highly appreciate his true value and realise that they made a big mistake.”

October 23rd 2012: “There were two offers in the summer,” Willian told Lancenet. “One from Chelsea and one from Tottenham. Choosing between the two clubs would be difficult. I don’t know. I mean, Tottenham is a big club and it has a good person in charge. Andre Villas-Boas wanted to bring me to Chelsea and also tried at Tottenham. He always sends me messages. We are always in touch, and he has become a friend, for sure. And Chelsea is Chelsea. They are a great team, with amazing players and are the champions of Europe. I would love to play for either of those clubs. But my mind remains at Shakhtar, and I’ll do my best to get the win against Chelsea. Everybody knows what my goal is. I’ve clearly stated that I would like to play in a bigger stage, whether it be England, Spain or Italy. I want to come back to the national team, and being in a bigger spotlight would help me get noticed.”

December 20th 2012: “My goal is to play for a bigger club in a high level league. If I tell you that I was happy, I would be lying. My desire was there, with a €25million (£20.3m) offer from a big club like Chelsea. I wanted to pack my things and go, but I can’t do that as I am under contract. It shows how much Shakhtar like me and shows that I am doing a good job, which is why they wanted me to stay. I have tried to convince them many times to let me go. I know that Juventus and Chelsea have made offers to buy me and that motivates me a lot. The club know that I want to leave, everyone knows that. The president has told me that he’ll let me go for €30million (£24.4m) and my intention is to sign for a big club.”

January 31st 2013: Willian signs for Anzhi Makhachkala for €35 million.

February 6th 2013: “Of course I thought about everything, I also took the Champions League into account, but it was the right moment to leave,” said Willian. “In the middle of the year it would make two years I would have been trying to leave without success. It’s indifferent for me that Shakhtar are in the round of 16 of the Champions League and Anzhi are in the Europa League. My objective was to leave from the front door and I think that happened. I don’t feel hurt by anybody.”

August 17th 2013: “There was the Manchester City bid that was turned down,” said Willian. “Now I’m waiting for a new bid to arrive in the next days from a few clubs, like Liverpool. If it’s really Liverpool, then it is surely a great club. I’m hopeful and very calm, just waiting for the best. England is my goal. I like the Premier League very much, I enjoy English football and certainly, if that happens, it will be very good for me and for my image.”

August 22nd 2013: Spurs agree £22m deal for Willian and he passes a medical with the club.

August 23rd: Chelsea also have a bid accepted for Willian.

August 23rd 2013: “I think he’s already made his decision,” said Jose Mourinho. “I don’t like to speak before time because football can be crazy. I know what the player wants, so in this moment we cannot hide. That is a possibility. You have to do the medical before, but the best thing to do is to do the medical in secret. If the player is fine, you can sign him.”

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Aug 162013
 

The inevitable media hype machine surrounding any new Premier League campaign has been suitably fuelled, revved up and is well and truly in motion. As the big kick off imches ever closer, there isn’t a paper you will open, a TV or Radio broadcast you will hear or… um, a blog you will read that isn’t vying for your attention and demanding that you get excited for the forthcoming season. It’s been the same every summer. It will be the same next summer and for every summer thereafter.

However, at the risk of getting caught up in the hyperbole, there does actually seem to be a unique sense of intrigue about this campaign in particular; intrigue bought about primarily by the fact that the three leading sides in the country have all changed their respective managers. Everybody wants to see how David Moyes will cope having to step into shoes of Sir Alex Ferguson, and whether Manuel Pellegrini will be able to justify the hype. The new men in Manchester will not only have to contend with one another as they duke it out at the top of the table, but also a certain Portuguese making his dramatic return to Stamford Bridge.

Yes, Jose Mourinho is back at Chelsea much to the joy of Blues fans the world over. Having delivered and retained the club’s first league championship for 50 years in 2005, as well as supplementing these titles with two league cups and an FA Cup, there is very little wrong he could do in their eyes. As far as they are concerned, his unexpected departure after just three years following disputes with Roman Abramovich was far too abrupt.

After a spell in Italy and a sojourn in Spain, the self-anointed Special One has gone back to the club where he says he feels ‘loved’. Although the narrative of the Prodigal Son may not have been quite so fondly trotted out had Mourinho not been overlooked for the Manchester United role in favour of Moyes.

Ex-partners. Holidays. Jobs. The temptation is always there to go back and try to relive and recreate the great experiences we once had. Unfortunately, we often find that these experiences are never quite as good the second time around. ‘Going back’ isn’t always the best idea. In English football, two stand-out examples that Mourinho will be hoping not to emulate curiously concern both the Premier League’s Merseyside clubs.

Kendall in the wind

Howard Kendall’s three spells at Everton could not have been more different. It’s safe to say that the six years between 1981 and 1987, when Kendall first took the reins at Goodison Park, is the most successful period in the club’s long history. After an initial slow start, the 1983/84 season saw Kendall lead the Toffees to a respectable 7th place finish. In league terms, no improvement on the previous season but performances in the two domestic cups set the tone for what was to follow. The Blues were narrowly defeated by rivals Liverpool in the League Cup final but bounced back to defeat Watford 2-0 In the FA Cup. Graeme Sharp and a controversial Andy Grey header gifted Kendall his first trophy as a manager as well as ending a 14 year trophy drought for the club.

12 Months later, following an 18 game unbeaten run from December to May which saw only four points dropped, Everton were crowned champions of England finishing a massive 13 points clear of Liverpool in second. An extra time defeat to Manchester United at Wembley meant they were unable to defend the FA Cup but that mattered little a few days later when a 3-1 win over Rapid Vienna in Rotterdam saw Kendall’s side secure their first ever European trophy in the form of the Cup Winner’s Cup. A year on, the Blues narrowly finished second to Liverpool in the league as well as losing 3-1 to their city rivals in the FA Cup final. Kendall and Everton bounced back the following campaign to become champions once more beating Liverpool to the title by 9 points.

Significantly, Everton were never afforded the opportunity to compete in the European Cup thanks to the ban on English clubs following the Heysel tragedy in 1985. It has been said that this played a major part in Kendall’s decision to leave to manage Athletic Bilbao following that second title success in 1987.

In 1990, however, he returned to these shores and after a short spell at Manchester City he inevitably found himself back at Goodison. By Now though, Everton were no longer regular title challengers and found themselves falling further and further away from the summit. If Kendall was expected to reignite the flame of success and bring back the glory days, fans were to be left disappointed. Perhaps it was the club, perhaps it was the manager, perhaps it was both, but Everton seemed to stand still while the vast changes in English football were taking place around them and after three unremarkable mid-table finishes, Kendall resigned for a second time in December 1993 with the club slipping down the table.

Under his replacement Mike Walker, the Toffees survived relegation on the final day that season – something that was to be repeated during Kendall’s unprecedented third spell in charge just three years later. The first half of the 1997-98 season was nothing short of a disaster as Kendall oversaw just four wins and eleven defeats in 20 matches. Going into the final game at home to mid-table Coventry City, Everton occupied the third relegation spot and started the day one point behind Bolton. Despite the fact a win might not even be enough, the Blues laboured to 1-1 draw. Fortunately, they found themselves still in the division only by virtue of goal difference thanks to a 2-0 defeat for Bolton at Chelsea. For a third time, Kendall resigned.

A Dalg-eat-Dalg world

Overlapping and almost intertwined with Kendall’s first spell at Everton was Kenny Dalglish’s first tenure as Liverpool manager. Approaching the tail end of a fantastic playing career, Dalglish was appointed player-manager not long after his 34th birthday in 1985. Joe Fagan’s retirement, the emergence of Everton and the dark clouds of the Heysel aftermath hanging over head suggested the inexperienced Dalglish would have a major job on his hands taking charge of what was widely believed to be the best club in world football at the time. Any doubts soon evaporated as Liverpool immediately won the league – Dalglish scoring the winner against Chelsea in the title clincher – and FA Cup double in 1986.

After surrendering the league title to Everton the following year, 1987-88 saw the reds go on a 29 game unbeaten run from the start of the season, losing just twice overall, as they strolled to the title, finishing 9 points clear of Manchester United in second. A second double was only prevented thanks to a shock defeat by Wimbledon in the FA Cup final.

Kenny’s team were edged out by Arsenal in dramatic circumstances in the league the following season but picked up another FA Cup after defeating Everton 3-2 at Wembley.

Another league title followed in 1990 – the club’s 18th and their last to date – but while in pole position to defend their crown the following year, Dalglish shocked the world by unexpectedly resigning in February 1991. After 6 years, three titles and 2 FA Cups, Dalglish felt that the stress of the job and pressure he was putting on himself to succeed was too much. It may not have been a popular decision, it was one reluctantly accepted by the red half of Merseyside. He may have walked away prematurely, but he walked away a legend.

It is with this in mind that almost exactly 20 years on, following the somewhat calamitous six month tenure of Roy Hodgson, Dalglish was once more put in temporary charge of his beloved reds. This provided the shot in the arm the club needed. A strong initial six month showing saw wins over Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City, leading to Dalglish being reappointed on a permanent basis. A decision welcomed with open arms by fans despite the fact he hadn’t been in management since an unsuccessful spell at Newcastle at the end of the 1990s. For the fans at Anfield, Dalglish was back to complete some unfinished business following his hasty departure years earlier.

Unfortunately, the football landscape had shifted monumentally and sadly for Dalglish, he had very much been left behind. Those initial good results masked failings to his management style; failings that would manifest themselves in different ways. There was, of course, the reckless spending on the likes of Stewart Downing, Jordan Henderson and Andy Carroll, whose combined £70million+ transfer fees are still the source of great amusement to all non-scousers to this day.

Dalglish did bring Luis Suarez to the club but as has been well documented, this signing brought its own problems. Not least when the Uruguayan was accused and subsequently found guilty of using racist language in a match against Manchester United. Dalglish’s vehement defence of the player was seen as both misguided and out of touch.

On the pitch, after a promising start, 2011-12 saw Liverpool lose 11 of their 19 league games between January and May to end the season in 8th place – their lowest finish since 1994. Dalglish did win the League Cup and reach the FA Cup final but the dismal league form provided little indication that the glory days of the past would return and he was unceremoniously sacked.

Outside of Merseyside, there are other examples of ill-advised decisions by managers to go back to scenes of past glories. With the greatest of respect to Kevin Keegan, he’s unlikely to make it into anybody’s list of top English managers down the years but having propelled Newcastle from the brink of relegation to the third tier all the way up to touching distance of the Premier League crown during the 90s, he will always be a hero on Tyneside. The less said about his short lived return in 2008, the better. The likes of Mike Walker (Norwich), Gerry Francis (QPR) and Ron Atkinson (Sheff Weds) all also found that things were never quite as rosy second time around.

There are a number of reasons why initial triumphs cannot be repeated. Circumstances at clubs quite often change and nowadays, without a hefty pot of cash, success is remarkably difficult to attain. Then there is the paradox of increased the pressure and expectation to emulate earlier achievements while seemingly being given more slack or leeway due to the good work done previously. Call it complacency or simple blind loyalty, any failings are easily forgiven and, as seen in the examples above, the risk of sleepwalking into mediocrity becomes far greater.

For the manager himself, the fear of failure may well diminish when he has succeeded previously. A feeling of ‘been there, done that’ could well creep in. In Mourinho’s case, last season at Madrid saw him fail to land any silverware for the first time in charge of any club for a full season. Perhaps his powers are waning and he knows that being back at the Bridge where he is ‘loved’ means the fans wont bay for his blood after any perceived failure in the same way the Madridistas did.

It remains to be seen if Jose can buck this trend of managers failing to hit the same heights second time around. Given his resources, and the strength of the team he is taking over, it is difficult to see him ending up like Kendall or Dalglish. Mourinho is still relatively young, smart and talented enough for it not to be an issue, however, examples of the past mean that absolutely nothing should be taken for granted.

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Aug 152013
 

 

Our newest addition on BFTGT has spent his summer putting together a host of talented writers to produce something rather special for Chelsea fans. We let Joe Tweeds explain below.

Welcome to the Plains of Almería Season Preview for 2013/14. For just 99p we have a whole host of high quality content at your fingertips.

Tim Palmer looks into the way we are going to be playing this season; individual player profiles from some very familiar names; Aidan an eye on our rivals, a look to the academy and a whole host of additional content.

There is an exclusive look at Rafael Benitez’s diary during his time at Chelsea*, a journalists take on Chelsea’s relationship with the media, insight into Chelsea’s compliance with Financial Fair Play and what the situation is with Chelsea’s move away from Stamford Bridge.

(*anyone familiar with the Ballack diaries will know what to expect here)

This is ultimately a preview written by Chelsea fans, for Chelsea fans.

Carefree.

To download the Season Preview, simply fill in the amount you’d like to pay in £GBP, i.e. 0.99, 1.50, 5.00 (there is a minimum 99p donation) and click the Purchase Now button. You will then receive an email with your download link, which is valid for 10 days.

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Aug 132013
 

The Spanish press are reporting that Barcelona are determined to sign Chelsea defender David Luiz, and have claimed that it’s either him or nobody.

Reports suggest that Luiz is keen to make the move, particularly since countryman Neymar made the move to the Nou Camp earlier this summer. At Barcelona he would be used more regularly in the centre of defence, whilst he would be competing with Jose Mourinho favourite, John Terry, as well as Gary Cahill and Branislav Ivanovic. With the World Cup being hosted in Rio at the end of this season, Luiz believes he stands a better chance of partnering Thiago Silva in Luiz Felipe Scolari’s Brazil team if he’s at Barca.

Chelsea are apparently asking €40m for the player but the Catalan club’s improved offer is a bit short of that, €35m. Now the defender’s agent is expected to rock the boat in an attempt to push through the deal.

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Jul 312013
 

Being a Chelsea fan is often many things, but it is certainly never dull. We exist as a club in perpetual chaos – perilously balanced between the lines of self-destruction and harmony. The Chelsea juggernaut has defied all convention under Roman Abramovich. At times derailment and implosion looked inevitable; yet things always seem to be wrestled back from oblivion to remain on course. The constant state of flux at the club should never have produced the results it has. Nevertheless, the club appear to be moving to calmer waters by paradoxically rehiring the Special One Mk. II.

With the appointment of José Mourinho Chelsea return to essentially where it all began under Roman Abramovich. Every revolution needs a focal point and the last vestiges of the Mourinho ideology could be seen in every trophy Chelsea won after his departure. He imbued within the squad an inner strength that is rarely matched by another team in world football. The European Cup victory masterminded by Roberto Di Matteo leaned heavily on the resiliency of the original Mourinho squad. There is little merit in explaining Munich 2012 – Chelsea just wanted it more than Napoli, Benfica, Barcelona and Munich along the way. That yen for success is a classic trait of any Mourinho side.

With things coming full circle Chelsea have a manager who by his own admission believes he is “…in the best moment of [his] career in terms of knowledge and experience”. Chelsea have signed a more mature manager who despite his new found calmness still bristles with an impudent swagger. With the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson Chelsea have unquestionably the best manager in the Premier League.

If Mourinho’s arrival has produced all the headlines then it must be said that Chelsea’s greatest strength over the past 2-3 years has been to quietly amass some of Europe’s finest young talent. The much maligned Michael Emenalo should take credit for his work here. While questions remain about his ability to effectively construct a balanced squad, his forays into the European talent pool are proving far more successful.

Some, like Eden Hazard, were expensive. Nevertheless, if Gareth Bale is worth £100m then buying Eden Hazard for around £32m was a stroke of genius. Others like Romelu Lukaku were certainly expensive punts, however his development at West Bromwich Albion and subsequent improvements in preseason under Mourinho hopefully suggest this was a bargain fee. Oscar, likewise, came with an exorbitant price tag and his first season displays suggest he is worth every penny. It is prudent to note that none of this trio are older than 23.

Moreover, it is signings like Thibaut Courtois, Marco van Ginkel and Kevin De Bruyne (all for under £25m) where Emenalo deserves most credit. Chelsea have a direct world class replacement for Petr Cech in Thibaut Courtois. His performances for Atlético Madrid have been sensational and consolidated his position as Europe’s top young goalkeeper. Marco van Ginkel oozes class when in possession and is reminiscent of Fernando Redondo in his prime. Kevin De Bruyne might well develop into one of the world’s elite midfielders and is likely to feature in Chelsea’s strongest XI.

It will be particularly interesting to see how Mourinho utilises the prodigiously talented Oscar and Kevin De Bruyne. While Oscar has thrived playing both out wide and as a classic number 10, there is a school of thought that suggests a deeper deployment might be where he eventually settles. He has the passing range, skill, vision and aggression to become a modern deep lying playmaker. Drifting past players with ease before unleashing a pinpoint pass is the hallmark of the Brazilians playing style. Similarly, the comparisons between Kevin De Bruyne and an early Bastian Schweinsteiger cannot go amiss. De Bruyne can become the technically tenacious central midfield maestro that Chelsea have craved. With the direction that modern football is heading Mourinho may see the pair as potential options in his midfield pivot or in a 433 shape.

Perhaps the biggest cause of excitement for fans is the strides that the club’s academy has made over the past few seasons. The level of investment at the club has been substantial and 10 years down the line we are finally seeing the potential returns. Ryan Bertrand is now firmly established in the squad and given a continued run of games in the side has looked impressive. Nathaniel Chalobah shone at Watford during his time there and should see a Premier League loan this season. Whether he ends up as a ball playing centre back or technically accomplished central midfielder remains to be seen. Mourinho rates him and seemingly has him pencilled into his plans for the 2014/15 season.

Slightly further down is the intriguing prospect of Ruben Loftus-Cheek. RLC picked up some media attention over his contractual situation at the club. Nevertheless, he is a Rolls Royce of a midfielder blessed with both the size and technical ability that makes him the archetypal modern (and Mourinho) midfielder. I am a huge fan of RLC and there are whispers that he could already be a potential loan target for the second half of the season. While many factors ultimately contribute to whether a player makes the grade at a club, there are definitely several who have the potential. Loftus-Cheek strolls around the park much like Michael Ballack once did and is in the mould of Europe’s current elite central midfielders.

Whether by chance or scrupulous planning the situation the club currently finds themselves in is extremely exciting. A blend of experience, some of the best young talent in world football and an academy finally producing the desired quality suggests the future is certainly bright. It actually feels a little too sensible for Chelsea. The 2013/14 Barclays Premier League season needs to be one of gentle evolution at the club. Mourinho must cultivate a team capable of challenging for the title, but more importantly provide the technical and tactical nous to extract the best from his players. This is a team that should be seen as a two year project: first year to blend and second year to really impose themselves on the league.

Under the Benitez regime (I am delighted I no longer have to type that name on a regular basis) I turned from a naturally optimistic fan to one who resented going to games. There was a poisonous atmosphere that was the result of a board and fan base going in completely the opposite direction. Everything has changed now. Everything. After several tumultuous seasons defined by managerial sackings and dreaming of what might have been the club finally feels stable. Nevertheless, the questions surrounding the club and its players will no doubt persist. Will Mourinho stay? Can Chelsea keep the likes of Hazard, Mata, Luiz and Oscar away from the clutches of Spain’s top clubs?

Maybe I am being slightly naïve but I truly believe that Mourinho is here for the long haul. The way he speaks of London and how happy his family are when living here says everything. Mourinho will actively want this to be the “dynasty” he has often spoken about. If the club continues to develop bonds with players in a similar fashion to Didier Drogba, then there is hope of holding on to Hazard, Mata et al. If this crop of players can remain together for five years I would be happy to predict at least another European Cup and at least one more league title.

The future is bright and it is definitely blue.

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Jul 252013
 
Giggs and RvP

The 2013/14 Premier League season is set to explode back into our consciousness in just three weeks time and what a campaign it promises to be. Fans all over the globe are eagerly rubbing their hands at the prospect of a catalogue of intriguing storylines, controversial incidents, stunning goals and surprise packages over the next nine months whilst teams, managers and players will all be looking to create a new slice of history in what is arguably the most gripping league in the world.

Here’s a look at where the biggest talking points could arise along with a few predictions.

Title Race/Top-4 Contenders

The title race represents a tantalising prospect this upcoming season as it is widely expected to be a compelling contest with as many as six teams in the mix for English football’s top prize. Numerous managerial changes signal a dawn of a new era making for a hugely competitive, yet unpredictable, campaign. Three of last year’s top four teams have made switches in the dugout this summer, with all eyes on David Moyes and Manuel Pellegrini inManchester, whilstChelseafans will be hoping that the return of the “Special One” can end the wait for the team’s first title since 2010.

Defending champions Man Utd, along with Man City and Chelsea, will be the main contenders for the top honour, however, a rejuvenated Arsenal will be looking to mount a serious challenge, while the likes of Tottenham and Liverpool – providing they can keep hold off their star players Gareth Bale and Luis Suarez – will be determined to secure a top-4 finish at the very least, which only  adds to the unpredictability at the top.

Everton cannot be ruled out of a place in the top-four either. New boss Roberto Martinez has boldly proclaimed his ambition to propel the Toffees into a prized Champions League spot, but will need to make a couple of astute signings as well as holding onto his star names, in order to achieve this challenging goal.

Top 10 Finish

The other top-flight teams will find it difficult to break into the top-seven, which leaves three remaining places for a creditable top-10 finish. The likes of West Brom andSwanseawill be looking for top-half standings once again, while there is a real sense of optimism on the south coast atSouthampton, with their highly rated boss Mauricio Pochettino setting his sights on a European place.

Meanwhile north east rivals Sunderland andNewcastlewill be eager to make a vast improvement on last season’s relegation battles. Nothing is ever dull with Paolo Di Canio at the helm, while Joe Kinnear’s return to Tyneside is sure to make for an interesting season ahead for Magpies fans.

Elsewhere, Fulham and West Ham together with Aston Villa will be hoping to challenge but they too must show marked signs of improvement on the 2012/2013 campaign.

Relegation Battle

The frantic fight for survival in one of the most competitive leagues in the world is always a thrilling, yet nerve-shredding, affair.Norwichand Stoke endured difficult run-ins last season and could be in danger of losing their top-flight status in 2014, however, as is usually the case, the three promoted clubs have been installed as the favourites to drop straight back down to the Championship.

CrystalPalacehave a woeful record in the Premier League having suffered relegation in all four of their seasons at the top. Under charismatic boss Ian Holloway they will be looking to rip up the history books and cement their place in the top-flight for a second season, which will be easier said than done.

Hull are also expected to struggle, while money-bags Cardiff have the potential to conjure up a surprise or two, providing they splash the cash, although as QPR found out that method can prove chaotic and ultimately costly.

However, if you delve into the recent records you’ll find that between 2001 and 2011, at least one of the three promoted teams has survived the first season in the top flight, while in 2011/12 QPR, Norwich and Swansea all miraculously survived, whereas both Southampton and West Ham avoided an instant return last season. The question therefore is, which ofCardiff,HullandCrystalPalaceare capable of continuing that trend this term?

Top Goalscorer Contenders

As always, the race to win the Premier League Golden Boot will be hotly contested amongst the top flight’s best strikers and last year’s winner Robin Van Persie will be looking to become the first player since Thierry Henry to win the prestigious award for the third time in a row.ManCity’s Sergio Aguero, Tottenham’s Gareth Bale and Wayne Rooney are also in contention along with last year’s surprise package, Aston Villa’s Christian Bentake, Daniel Sturridge andManCitynewcomer Álvaro Negredo.

LMA Manager of the Year

Having won it twice in the past three years, Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement opens up the door for another manager to win the prestigious LMA Manger of the year award. Due to the amount of managerial changes, this looks set to be a very competitive and Fergie’s replacement David Moyes and his cross-city rival, Manuel Pelligrini, have to be fancied along with Jose Mourinho, who amazingly never won the gong in his previous three year stint atStamfordBridge.

Surprise winners in recent years include Alan Pardew (2012) and Roy Hodgson (2010), which provides hope for those gaffers outside of the top six and it would be no shock if Mauricio Pochettino, Roberto Martinez, Paolo Di Canio or Steve Clarke emerged victorious next May if they can guide their respective teams to a successful campaign or cup run.

New Signings

There have been a number of exciting new additions to the Premier League so far and there are sure to be some more signings before the transfer window slams shut at the start of September.ManCityfans are looking forward to seeing the hugely talented Jesus Navas and Fernandinho plying their trade in the Premier League, while Tottenham have snapped up Paulinho. There will no doubt be a couple of me marquee signings in the pipeline, with the futures of Luis Suarez, Wayne Rooney, Gareth Bale and Christian Benteke still yet to be decided.

Goal-line Technology

At long last goal-line technology, in the form of the hawk-eye system, will be employed for the first time next season. In recent years a spate of controversial incidents and referee/linesman howlers have forced the league’s big wigs to finally act. Hopefully we can look forward to a fair and unproblematic process, although there is bound to be an odd contentious moment as is always the case with technology.

Premier League 2013/14 Predictions

Chelseato win the Premier League

Robin Van Persie to win the Golden Boot

Stoke to get relegated

Southamptonto finish in the top 10

November to be the month of first managerial departure

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Jul 192013
 

José Mourinho has repeatedly claimed that he is keen to sign Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney, with Chelsea seeing a bid for the player rejected earlier this week. David Moyes insists that Rooney is not for sale, although it is believed the club would accept a large offer from abroad for the striker, but will not sell to a Premier League rival.

Mourinho claimed it was Rooney or no one, but it has been reported that Chelsea haven’t ruled out a bid for Real Madrid’s Gonzalo Higuaín, who Arsenal have been interested in for some time. With discussions taking their time, the North London club have turned their attention to Liverpool’s Luis Suarez.

“Mourinho wants me there,” Higuain is quoted as saying by AS today.

It is no secret that Higuaín’s other alternative is Napoli, whose club president, Aurelio De Laurentiis, has revealed his interest in the Argentine striker and, according to Thursday’s edition of ‘Corriere dello Sport’, the club is preparing a €30-million bid after the sale of Cavani to PSG for €64 million.

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Jul 132013
 

Chelsea have landed in Bangkok for their pre-season tour. Their first game is in four days from now against Singha All Stars. They then move on to Kuala Lumpa to play Malaysia XI. Next stop is Jakarta for the BNI Indonesia All Stars.

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