With just a few weeks before the new football season starts, it’s time to look in my crystal balls (I need more than one) and see what the future holds for our beloved boys in blue.
After the utter weirdness of last season, with the ejection of Jose Mourinho, our very own enfant terrible and our most successful coach ever, the appointment of a nice, but bumbling and ineffective unqualified coach in uncle Avram Grant and the subsequent highly polarised highs and lows of the actual football, we have now had a good couple of months to dust ourselves down, chop out some of the deadwood, banish our mental demons, wake up and smell the coffee and get ready to grab the bull by the horns. Why use one hackneyed old cliché when five will do the job equally as well?
Of course last season was about ridiculous highs and lows in comparison to the previous three years which for the best part had all been highs. To some of our newer contingent of fans, this sudden propensity to lose the odd game was nothing short of a disgrace and one for which, if you believed some of the more extreme supporters, Roman Abramovich should be despatched to a remote archipelago for life. For us more battle weary fans it was a sharp reminder of the heartbreak and misery the game can bring. But the reality is that long-term success is desperately hard to achieve. Every time you raise the bar, you merely provide a target for others to aim for. Complacency and arrogance will always be the downfall of the dominant power, be it in sport, politics, media or entertainment. Last season was a case in point. We always expected the loss of the league in 2006/2007 to be a blip and that the coveted (by fans anyway) Premier League title would be restored to the recently bulging trophy cabinet no doubt adorning a plush office somewhere in the bowels of Stamford Bridge.
The truth is a malaise was creeping through the club. The benefactor wanted style and results. The general only knew about achieving results. For Jose, the ends always justified the means. After his abrupt but signalled departure our season lay not in the hands of a well intentioned, but inexperienced replacement, but with the foot-soldiers who have to fight week in and week out. So obviously leaderless and rudderless that we achieved what we did will always be held up as remarkable by us true hardened fans. However, Roman sees the same things as us and the highs of beating Liverpool over two legs, beating Arsenal and Manchester United at home were tempered by defeats to Spurs in the Carling Cup final, the surrendering of leads in seven out of eight draws in the last minute, being held by Spurs after leading four times at Three Point Lane, defeat to Manchester United in the Champions League final in Roman’s back yard by the narrowest of margins and, for me, our most dismal moment, the loss to Barnsley in the FA Cup quarter-final.
After this it was no real surprise to have seen the departure of Grant, and despite the howls of indignation from the more pompous hacks stuck in some sort of rose tinted 1950’s world of footballing ethics and morality, the majority of fans knew the guy was not up to the job and was most definitely not the man to take us forward. The process of replacing Grant was as clandestine and confusing as choosing a new Pope. After weeks of speculation with the apparent lead changing hands from Frank Rijkaard to Roberto Mancini to Mark Hughes in some sort of bookmakers odds-chasing relay race a result was made as abruptly as Jeremy Paxman interrupting Michael Howard. Some puffs of white smoke could be seen above the towering minarets of Stamford Bridge. We had a new ‘Papa’!
Luiz Felipe Scolari was unveiled as the anointed one. It was time to remove our heads from our arses and move forwards. At the time of writing we’ve seen some interesting insights into Scolari’s manner and methodology. All of which have made me go from an ‘anti’ position to a ‘pro’ stance. His first press conference was simply marvellous, a real triumph and the best bit of PR we’ve produced for… a very long time. He spoke in English, a feat not even Claudio Ranieri could match for some months, confounding the press and fans. He was assured, charming, gracious and witty. He ticked every box that Grant had left blank. He made encouraging noises about Lampard and Didier Drogba, and categorically underlined his faith in John Terry. One sensed he knew every player before he’d even met them.
On the playing side in came Jose Bosingwa (officially before Scolari started, but he must have had him on the wishlist) to hopefully resolve our thorny right-back issues. In came Deco, a mystifying choice to some, but undoubtedly a classy player with the ability to influence games with Zola-like skills and vision. Out went Steve Sidwell who never really got the chance to develop, as did Claude Makelele and on-loan Khalid Boulahrouz. The rumours are that there are more to follow, and if that means Claudio Pizarro and Tal Ben Haim, then I will be smiling. Florent Malouda is a conundrum. Highly rated across the world of football, but generally falling into the abysmal category when playing for us. I would normally agree that every player deserves another season after their first in the Premier League, but so poor was he at times I’m tempted to say he should just go now. Rumours still abound, Kaka is coming for the price it would take to buy your own stint as the US President for two terms, but in the next breath he loves Milanese food too much. The Robinho story is now looking more and more like the interminable Michael Essien saga. We have yet to see if Drogba and Andriy Shevchenko will feature next season. Presumably Drogba is happy to stay provided there are no offers to play for another club, such as the Los Lobos Cocktail Bar XI in Magaluf.
So much remains to be seen, but most encouragingly for me is the inclusion of some of the youngsters including the highly rated Franco Di Santo in the pre-season tour squad. Chelsea FC… blooding youngsters… whatever next. It’s good to see Branislav Ivanovic out there as well. I’d convinced myself that he was some sort of invented species, as I am convinced about badgers (well, have you ever seen a live one, apart from on TV?), but he looked pretty okay yesterday when he came on. The game was a walk in the park – playing Chinese Chemists is a safer workout than battling some League Two outfit with a point to prove.
A few words on Makelele before the predictions. I hated him on arrival. I thought his blatant bit of cheating against Monaco was what fired them up to eventually beat us and prevent possibly our easiest chance of Champions League glory. But the truth is I wasn’t used to this type of player. I couldn’t see what he added. It was new and unknown. Over the years we have seen what a superb individual Maka is. A man who defined his role so well it will be known as ‘the Makelele role’ for a long time to come yet. And at the end of the day all he did was spoil things. He broke up moves from the opposition, not caring how ugly it was. He took risks by breaking moves up with fouls. He tackled ferociously and occasionally showed sublime skills on the ball. He protected the defence like no other player has done; everyone else is a poor copy when compared to him. He was the perfect bridge between the defence and an attacking midfield. In recent seasons the tackling has been less crisp, the passing less accurate, the clumsiness a bit more apparent, but Maka always played the game in the right spirit, and his beaming grin after scything someone down, combined with the upturned hands pleading to the ref that it was an accident saw him receive comparatively little in the way of punishment from the officials. During his time he has never complained, never sought the publicity and never strutted his ego publicly. A dignified man. We will miss him, but hopefully his legacy remains in the players who can play his role, John Mikel Obi and Essien. I would like to thank Claude for his sterling service and massive contribution to the pleasure of supporting Chelsea. He is a true legend and icon at the club and I wish him all the best in his tenure at Paris Saint-Germain and whatever lies beyond.
And now… my crystal balls. Providing we remain relatively injury free, and also benefitting from the fact that there is no African Cup of Nations to reduce our squad at a critical time, then I believe we will, through our power rather than balletic style, win the Premier League, but it will be tight. My prediction is that three or four points will separate first from second. Manchester United remain the closest contenders, but Liverpool will be determined to improve on fourth place and a fully firing Fernando Torres is a major threat to every other team. Arsenal may struggle a bit more this season after losing Mathieu Flamini, Aleksandr Hleb and maybe Emmanuel Adebayor, although Samir Nasri is a useful signing. But the fact remains that as well as the unrest the transfer talk causes, the rigidity of the wage structure at Arsenal will mean players heads will turn more easily and Arsene Wenger must be worried that they are becoming an academy club for the European predatory giants from across the water.
I think we’ll scale back our annual assault on the Carling Cup, but an FA Cup is also possible. Any cup competition has the added element of mystery and intrigue thrown up by the draw. In the Champions League we will get a good seeding this year, but the truth is there are very few minnows in the competition nowadays. To get to one final is hard enough (ask Arsenal), but to get to a second in consecutive years is nigh on impossible. If anyone can do it then it’s us, but to that end United are equally equipped to do the same. A return match? Good grief, can you imagine such a thing? It would be reminiscent of the Ali/Frazier or Leonard/Duran fights.
Premier League: 1st Chelsea, 2nd Manchester United, 3rd Liverpool, 4th Arsenal, Spurs (dark horses) or Aston Villa (even darker horses).
Champions League: Winners – Real Madrid, Runners-up – Manchester United or Chelsea.
FA Cup: Winners – Chelsea, Runners-up – Spurs (revenge will be sweet).
Carling Cup: Winners – Aston Villa, Runners-up – Newcastle.
And one more thing. Portsmouth to beat us on the opening day to finally release us from the shackles of that poxy millstone unbeaten home record, and to finally shut motor-mouth Neil Barnett up from mentioning it before each game.
I’m off to the hopefully sunny South of France for three and a bit weeks so will miss the first two home games of the season – my first will be when we play United in September, and I will be proudly taking my new seat in the Matthew Harding Upper stand, not a million miles from the rabble rousing Peter W and Jonathan D. I bet they can hardly wait!
Keep the Blue Flag Flying High!