Premier League Team Preview: Chelsea

Chelsea failed to win a trophy (or come particularly close to doing so) in 2010/11, and so Roman Abramovich threw a bit of a fit. Out went double-winning manager Carlo Ancelotti, in comes the booking Andre Villas-Boas to replace him. And, to be honest, that's about it. None of the expected moves to invigorate the squad have come to pass, and so the Blues are left with their old squad and a new manager. Is that going to be enough to challenge Manchester United for the title? The Chelsea Offside's Jack Goodson walks us through how 2011/12 will go for the denizens of Stamford Bridge.

Another year on Fulham Road. Another manager.

Shocking? Not really.

While, this weekend, Barclays prepares to carry the Premier League into its 20th season - platinum status, baby - Chelsea Football Club preps for life with yet another man at the wheel.

Andre Villas-Boas, the suave sophisticate with only 20 months of managerial experience, replaced the sacked Carlo Ancelotti at the end of June. The 33-year-old Portugese is the club's seventh manager in eight seasons.

His task is quite simply, really. Win.

Villas-Boas has done that in grand fashion already during his short career. Winning the Europa League, the Primeira Liga and the Portuguese Cup in his only season at FC Porto is testament to the man's talent and the impact he can make at a club. Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich is counting on a similar impression in London.

An impression has already been made to an extent. Sacking assistant first-team coach Paul Clement, a member of the Chelsea coaching hierarchy in some capacity since 1994, was a bold statement of intent from Villas-Boas. Cancelling the club's first preseason friendly, against Vitesse Arnhem, at the end of June, citing a lack of readiness, further cemented his power. Bringing on former Chelsea player Roberto Di Matteo as his No. 2 was a superb piece of psychological business.

Investment, at least at the elite level, has been nonexistent thus far this season. Thus, Villas-Boas is taxed with coaxing much out of a talented, veteran nucleus. The question essentially is: Can he do what Ancelotti failed to do in his second season?

Signs are good thus far. Chelsea improved as the preseason progressed. Several players look revitalized, and youth is being served.

The team, after all, is only a year and change removed from a first-ever domestic Double. Who's to say they can't do it again?

The Chels in 2010-11

It was a season so full of promise. Goals aplenty. Smiles, too. A five-point cushion at the top of the league table in October, courtesy of a 2-0 home win over Wolverhampton.

Then came the winter, and what we will refer to as the Great Rot.

A 1-0 away defeat to Wolves on January 5 capped the club's worst run of form in 14 years. Ten points out of a total 33 on offer from November 7. Chelsea rebounded marginally, enough to lightly tug at Manchester United in the final weeks of the season but nothing more.

In the end, this, to quote the man himself, bad moment cost Ancelotti his job. Villas-Boas will be very much interested in avoiding a similar winter, and a similar fate.

Summer Mercato

Incoming

So far it's been a summer of smart business from the club. Smart and young to be exact. What has gotten into Chelsea?

Thibaut Courtois was signed from Racing Genk for a fee that could rise to £7.9 million. The highly rated Belgian goalkeeper, just 19 years old, was then immediately loaned to Atletico Madrid. Spain Under-20 international Oriol Romeu was recruited from Barcelona. The combative midfielder, also 19, cost an initial £4.35m, with Barcelona able to purchase the player back for a flat fee in either of the following two seasons (€10m in 2012, €15 in 2013). Last week, 17-year-old Anderlecht striker Romelu Lukaku completed his dream move to Stamford Bridge for a fee reported to be €13m plus add-ons. Dare I say bargain for one of world football's hottest commodities?

Missing out on the likes of Tottenham maestro Luka Modric - not yet beyond happening - and Javier Pastore stings, but only just. Signs of a new, more shrewd approach in the market are here.

Outgoing

There has been plenty of movement out of the club this offseason, not that much of it will affect the first team.

Promising young stiker Fabio Borini joined Parma on a free transfer. Former sporting director Frank Arnesen took the same position with Hamburg in the close season, and his first bit of business was hijacking a trio of Chelsea players - defender Michael Mancienne (£3m) as well as midfielders Jacopo Sala and Gökhan Töre. FK Baumit Jablonec signed goalkeeper Jan Šebek and Sheffield United landed Danny Philliskirk, both on frees. Michael Woods was released. Jack Cork, a favorite of many supporters, headed to Southampton for a fee believed to be around £750,000. The most prominent departure of the summer, thus far, however, has been Yuri Zhirkov. The 27-year-old Russian returned to his homeland on August 6, moving to major players Anzhi Makhachkala in a £13.2 million deal. Good business for both parties that one.

Expectations, 2011-12

To win and win stylishly. Obviously.

Success at this club is rather unique. You see, a domestic league and FA Cup Double in your first season as a manager in England spares you not from the Russian's furor. Ancelotti, whether you felt he was capable of righting the ship or not, was dealt a ruthlessly poor hand. That's neither here nor there, though. Villas-Boas has arrived, and he'll need to impress from the off.

Abramovich should prove less lethal with his new toy, but any dip similar to the one that afflicted Ancelotti last season will test the owner's resolve.

If Villas-Boas can sidestep the malaise and keep the players motivated, a sustained title challenge will not be expected but realized.

The keys

Fernand Torres. Arrived for a small fortune in January. Not only did the Spaniard looked lost, he was largely a shadow of the player Abramovich thought he was purchasing. The result was a laughable one for Liverpool supporters - one goal in 18 appearances. He appeared far more comfortable in the preseason, even throwing in some defensive tracking back for good measure, though goals were still at a premium. If the 27-year-old can regain some semblance of the form that made him one of the finest strikers in world football not so long ago, Chelsea will feature a frontline to die for. And, yeah, they'll be amongst the favorites in any competition.

Frank Lampard. The talismatic midfielder labored through an injury-plagued campaign last season. Though somewhat effective on his return, after some four months out, he was, at times, a shell of his former self. An indifferent preseason has done little to quell fears of the inevitable veteran downfall. How Lampard responds this season - how he contributes more specifically - may be critical. Then again, the likes of Josh McEachran and fit-again Yossi Benayoun are primed as potential replacements.

Rotation. Ancelotti played our veteran core into the ground last season, and it likely cost us dearly. Didier Drogba, despite suffering from malaria during our mid-season slump last term, played on. And on. And on. Villas-Boas has tools at his disposal. Options and versatility. A more open approach to interchange and rotation will do wonders for a side that doesn't really have age on its side.

Villas-Boas. Herein lies the real key. How our new, youthful manager handles the pressure that accompanies such a high-profile position, and how he handles these world-class egos and the various in-squad issues that have been apparent since last season will decide just how successful Chelsea can be in 2011-12.

A potential breakout (of youth)?

There is a real feeling amongst supporters that Chelsea may have not one, but many younger players significantly contributing this season.

King Carlo spoke regularly of this club's great potential at youth level. Villas-Boas, meanwhile, appears ready to act on it. The Portugese, in his limited time, has already hinted at a higher level of involvement for several of the club's high-profile young'ns. Preseason saw the inclusion of a host of them, including towering 22-year-old Serbian sledgehammer Slobodan Rajković.

Rajković had not featured for Chelsea in the six years since his signing in November 2005, British work permit issues largely derailing his opportunity. Yet there he was in July, accompanying the first-team squad on its preseason tour of Asia at the request of the manager himself. It remains to be seen whether the Serbian will receive a permit for the upcoming season, or if he will ever feature for the club, but his inclusion thus far is a clear sign that Villas-Boas is eyeying a new wave of talent at the Bridge.

Among them: Josh McEachran. McEachran crept into the England psyche last season, the wiry 18-year-old midfielder showcasing a coolness in the spotlight not seen since Val Kilmer's on-screen portrayal of Iceman in the greatest cinematic event of all-time, Top Gun. Of course I kid, but not about young Josh. His potential has many expecting a Jack Wilshere-like progression this term. I, for one, would not be surprised.

Elsewhere, there is Daniel Sturridge. The 21-year-old forward joined the club from Manchester City in July 2009, a huge coup. His time with Chelsea has been scattered at best, a lack of playing time the main culprit, but a loan to Bolton during January of last season proved an epiphany of sorts. Eight goals in 12 appearances followed, Sturridge proceeding to sweep aside all in his path. An impressive preseason has followed, leaving supporters confident the England Under-21 will make a telling impact for the club in 2011-12, even with a host of world-class talent surrounding him at the position.

Prediction

So very difficult. A fourth league crown in eight seasons is certainly not out of the realm of possibility. Nor should it be, not with a squad that, when healthy, can rival any in the country. However, the lack of impact investment leaves significant questions - of not only the club's hierarchy but of a core that was considered fairly old three seasons ago. Can these men resurrect themselves once again? It's a difficult ask, even for elite talents such as John Terry and Lampard, players who have been at competitive tilt almost year-round for the better part of this decade. Couple that with the spending that has taken place elsewhere, specifically at the Manchester clubs, and a top-two place, almost a given under Abramovich, is at risk.

Health, of course, will be vital in sustaining a title challenge this season, particularly if a late spending spree (i.e. January) does not come to fruition. Chemistry under new management is another. Avoiding a second successive January capitulation - when the likes of Drogba and Salomon Kalou will depart for the latest edition of the African Cup of Nations - will go far in deciding our fate. All that plays into Chelsea's hands, and Roman is golden. As it stands, third place appears a lock.

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