Chelsea’s latest campaign offered a revealing commentary on the high stakes of modern top-flight football and the narrow margin between perceived success and failure. For the Blues, it was a season dominated by a generally unloved manager’s attempt to take the team further than his beloved predecessor had taken it.
Following José Mourinho at Stamford Bridge was always going to be the highest order, but anyone other than Avram Grant, with any boss other than Roman Abramovich, would probably have been lauded for bringing Chelsea so close to treble glory. Defeated in extra time in the Carling Cup final; trailed by two points in the Premier League title race despite racking up 85 points (the first time a team had scored so many without securing the title); and defeated in a penalty shootout after extra time in the Champions League final – Grant’s stab at football immortality with the Blues was heroic.
But it was a flop all the same, and his reward, after being doubted, ridiculed and cursed with weak praise, was dismissal, a couple of days after John Terry’s kick hit the post in the shootout. shots in Moscow to give Manchester United the coveted European crown.
Chelsea had lost just two Premier League games out of 32 under Grant: the first, against United at Old Trafford and then against Arsenal at Ashburton Grove. In the critical closing stages of the season, the Blues beat both the Gunners and United at Stamford Bridge and actually kept the title race against Sir Alex Ferguson’s side alive until the last day of the campaign, making it That says a lot about his determination and consistency.
They were relentless in their quest for the title, beating Arsenal at the end of March to finish second and come close to overtaking the defending champions. But two points dropped in a home draw against Wigan, for whom Emile Heskey scored a 91st-minute equalizer on 14 April, proved costly, although United’s significantly better goal difference was always worth an extra point if the push had come. .
That reflected the Achilles heel of Grant’s team: they played without the attacking flair and flair of United or Arsenal and actually scored the fewest goals in the top four. Although they kept a remarkable 21 clean sheets at the other end, Abramovich had demanded ‘expansive’ football after Mourinho, but got more of the same down-to-earth, pragmatic stuff under Grant. Without being able to deck that out with silverware, or win over a skeptical local crowd, Grant was always on borrowed time. Speculation about his future, which reached a fever pitch after a Carling Cup final loss to Tottenham London and an embarrassing FA Cup quarter-final loss to Barnsley, was a constant accompaniment of the reign. from Grant.
His team showed character and resilience, especially in defence, but often struggled for creativity and goals, with Didier Drogba scoring just eight in La Liga, and January import Nicolas Anelka managing just one, though he mostly played away. position. Dynamic central midfielder Michael Essien also spent too much time filling in for the right-back, while the manager failed to get the best of Florent Malouda’s expensive summer purchase. There was an over-reliance on midfielders Frank Lampard (who had his own injury and personal problems last season) and Michael Ballack (who emerged as the Blues’ most influential player in the final third of the campaign). His goalscoring and dynamism helped bring Chelsea so close to dazzling prizes, though it was symptomatic that pundits and many fans felt his contribution owed more to grief than to Grant’s leadership. That was the burden imposed on him by the Israeli’s apparent lack of charisma.
The managerial soap opera at Stamford Bridge ended when Grant was unceremoniously sacked, with his successor announced during Euro 2008 as Portugal boss Luiz Felipe Scolari. The Brazilian arrives with everything Grant lacked: gravitas, a hugely impressive resume, charisma, the authority that comes with a reputation as a disciplinarian and the respect of the players. Scolari is, after all, a World Cup winner who has also won the Copa Libertadores twice.
If there are reservations because he has been out of club football for seven years, the risk seems small. The 59-year-old has been there and done it before, and if dealing with the English tabloids is one aspect of your new job you probably don’t like, it’s unlikely you’ll find it any more uncomfortable than dealing with the media at your Native Brazil.
Scolari is the fourth Chelsea manager of the Abrasmovich era; the previous three, Claudio Ranieri, Mourinho and Grant, were sacked despite offering what at most clubs would pass for relative success. So Scolari knows what to expect and what is expected: to win back the Premier League title from United and win the Champions League for the first time in Chelsea’s history. The other imperative is to achieve both through a stimulating, entertaining and attacking style of football. really simple. The key question is: Will Scolari be able to adjust to the demands of club football quickly and efficiently enough to deliver what is required in his first season back in the academy?
It’s off to a decent start. Drogba and Lampard, both heavily tipped to join Mourinho at Inter Milan, are still at Bridge and seem likely to stay for at least next season. Portuguese winger José Bosingwa, well known to Scolari, was recruited and waiting for him, and another familiar face has since arrived, the creative and driven Deco. Speculation persists that Robinho could still join them, and that would certainly strengthen their attacking options and sharpen the goal threat, where the Blues were lacking last season. The fans would probably be happier to have an additional quality striker on board, unless the form of Andriy Shevchenko and Claudio Pizarro underwent a dramatic transformation over the summer.
In terms of departures, Claude Makelele’s return to France should be adequately covered by the appearance of John Obi Mikel in the holding midfielder role, while Steve Sidwell, while a good player, was never really used, so that no one will miss him. The transfers of Tal Ben Haim (Manchester City) and Khalid Boulahrouz (Stuttgart) will not leave any gaps in Scolari’s forces either.
The preseason has been useful if exhausting: the goodwill trip to China and Malaysia was great for public relations, but arguably of only limited value to Scolari in terms of preparation. But going to Moscow for the Railway Cup offered a more relevant test and, setting aside another shootout in the Russian capital, Chelsea can reflect on last weekend with satisfaction. The resounding 5-0 win over AC Milan will have made many take notice, as will Anelka’s four-goal salvo in the rout.
Scolari has said he is now more or less clear on what his starting XI will be for the Premier League opener against Portsmouth, so at least one of the main pre-season goals has been met.
Analysis and Forecast
There will be a lot of interest in how well and how quickly Scolari fits into his new job. He will have the benefit of the doubt, something Grant never enjoyed; but there will still be the specter of Mourinho, who won the Premier League and the League Cup in his first season at the Bridge after arriving from Portugal. The parallels are there for direct comparison. His press conferences promise to be entertaining, but it’s on the pitch that the entertainment quotient will come under most scrutiny.
The addition of Bosingwa should add some genuine quality on the right side to an already formidable defence, behind which Petr Cech has a bit of luck after a miserable spell, so Chelsea will once again be one of the toughest teams to annotate.
And in midfield they have a veritable cornucopia of riches. With Essien returned to center where he is at his best, Ballack in the kind of form he displayed during the latter stages of last season and at Euro 2008, Deco’s vision of adding a new creative dimension to Chelsea and Lampard’s game in form and focus, Mikel Offering power and muscle to run, plus the likes of Joe Cole, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Malouda to provide pace and width on the flanks, Scolari’s challenge will be finding the right mix and balance while keeping his team happy. all its stars
Anelka issued a warning in Moscow and Scolari may be prepared to play to his strengths, down the middle, at Drogba’s expense in a way Grant was hesitant to do. The fact that Drogba is likely to miss the start of the season with injury could make that decision easier. Salomon Kalkou impressed last season, but too often made the wrong choice with his last ball, so we can expect an improvement there.
Scolari has indicated that Shevchenko will not be in the starting line-up, at least initially, but the Ukrainian has said that he is determined to make an impact at Chelsea and if he is enthusiastic rather than timid when he comes off the bench, then he’ll give your manager a useful option.
Chelsea are certain to challenge hard for the title, and with the strength of their squad in depth and a seemingly unassailable home record, they are likely to be in the top places for most of the campaign. They have the playing resources and now, they hope, the right coach to win big honors again. But a lot will also depend on United, Arsenal and Liverpool, at least, so how Scolari reacts to the challenge from the Big Four and how he plans his head-to-head tactics could prove decisive.
I expect the Blues to be challenging on all fronts until the late stages and possibly pick up a cup; but winning the Premier League title at Scolari’s first attempt, after being out of the club’s game for a long time, could be a bridge too far. A top three finish then, but not first place.
Coach: Luiz Felipe Scolari
Stadium: Stamford Bridge (42,055)
2007-08 Position: 2nd
Record 2007-08: P-38 W-25 D-10 L-3 GF-65 GA-26 GD-39 Pts-85
José Bosingwa (FC Porto, £16.2m), Deco (Barcelona, £8m).