Sunday, August 5, 2007

Premiership Preview--2. Chelsea

2. The 2006-2007 Premier League season was decided on April 28 when Chelsea, needing nothing short of a win, welcomed Bolton to Stamford Bridge. After falling behind 1-0, Salomon Kalou equalized and an own goal by Bolton goalkeeper Jussi Jaaskelainen put Chelsea up 2-1. On the same day, in the northwest of England, league leader Manchester United were in deep trouble against Everton, down 2-0 50 minutes into the game. A Chelsea win coupled with a Manchester United loss would've put the two teams equal on points and set up a massive showdown to decide the league at Stamford Bridge just two weeks later. However, a 54th minute goal from Bolton's Kevin Davies leveled the game at 2-2, where it would finish, and Manchester United scored 4 consecutive goals to beat Everton 4-2 and effectively wrap up the title.

Chelsea hope to write a different story for the 2007-2008 season. French winger Florent Malouda was the club's only cash buy as he came over from Lyon. The other three players brought in this summer (Tal Ben Haim, Claudio Pizarro, and Steve Sidwell) by José Mourinho were free transfers; absolute steals as each of those players wouldn't have come cheap if they were still under contract with their respective clubs. Malouda's breakout performance at the 2006 World Cup for France was followed up by his earning the Ligue 1 Player of the Year award for Lyon in the 2006-2007 season. At $26 million US, he's going to be counted on to produce on the wing in Chelsea's vaunted 4-3-3/4-5-1 formation. Tal Ben Haim moved over from Bolton and provides Mourinho with a legitimate 2nd/3rd option at center back behind John Terry, and will also be used at right back and even left back if need be. This frees up the powerful Michael Essien to return full-time to the central midfield role at which he excels. Peruvian international Claudio Pizarro's transfer from Bayern Munich is a solid move for Chelsea. Behind Didier Drogba, who scored a team-high 20 goals in 32 league games last season, and Salomon Kalou, the striking choices for Mourinho aren't too reliable. Ukranian forward Andriy Shevchenko only scored 4 goals in the Premiership last season (in 22 games; Kalou scored 7 in 19 games) and can't be counted on yet, though increased production is expected from him as he's now had a full season to adjust to the Premier League. Pizarro brings Champions League experience and production to a team that will undoubtedly be focusing on Europe's top competition this season. Midfielder Steve Sidwell had it made at Reading; starting and playing every game he was fit enough to take part in was a given with Steve Coppell's club but he wanted to play for a higher-profile team that played in Europe. He'll provide some depth to the Chelsea midfield; but with Michael Essien, John Obi Mikel, Frank Lampard, Lassana Diarra, Claude Makelele, and even Michael Ballack all playing in the center, Sidwell's playing time figures to be limited.

A trip to Anfield to meet Liverpool highlights the first month of Chelsea's schedule, which also includes a home game against Portsmouth. The best two teams in the Premiership square off at Old Trafford on September 23 as Manchester United will look to make a statement for the rest of the season at home and Chelsea will try and make one of their own and get a rare away win at the home of the defending champions. Out of 6 combined games in October and November, 4 of which are on the road, anything less than 15 points would have to considered a disappointment with the quality of teams Chelsea will face in that span. Tough games at Arsenal and Blackburn are the last two before Christmas, and a home game against Aston Villa on December 26th won't be easy either. Chelsea play Tottenham twice in a span of 6 games, once in the middle of January (home) and the other at the end of February. February will prove to be a difficult month for the Blues, as not only do Chelsea have to go to Tottenham, they'll travel to Fratton Park (never easy) and play host to Liverpool. It's downhill from there until the end of the season, however, as Chelsea will be expected to take the maximum points in 10 of the last 11 games. If the title chase is at tight as many people expect it to be, the March 26 game at Stamford Bridge against Manchester United could very well decide the Premiership.

Bottom Line: Two Premiership titles in the past three seasons, as well as an FA Cup, two Carling Cups, and a Community Shield don't seem to be enough for Chelsea fans. The focus this year will be the Champions League as the Blues have never won it in their history. They've been eliminated in the semi-finals in two of the past three tournaments by Liverpool (both under Mourinho), and in three of the past four competitions in total. Another unsuccessful trip to the semi-finals is not going to cut it under chairman Roman Abramovich, and a failure to win the whole thing may cost Mourinho his job. With all that said, Liverpool have a chance to make a run at second place as Chelsea's priorites will lie in Europe, but Chelsea's roster is so deep that they'll be able to hold off the Reds. I don't think Chelsea can win the Premiership this season; injuries are already taking a toll on the London club and Manchester United are looking fit and ready to go. Second in the Premiership and an appearance in the Champions League final in Moscow (where they'll lose to Barcelona) is my prediction.

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