Believe it or not, it’s now less than eight weeks before Chelsea opens up its 2012-13 English Premier League season when the Blues travel to Greater Manchester’s DW Stadium on Aug. 18 to face Wigan Athletic.
After finally winning its first UEFA Champions League title with a thrilling victory over Bayern Munich in May, Chelsea parted ways with legend Didier Drogba—who signed a two-and-a-half-year deal with Shanghai Shenhua earlier this month—as well as Salomon Kalou and José Bosingwa.
Drogba’s departure is a pretty tough pill to swallow for many Blues fans, but the 34-year-old Ivorian striker leaves after creating many brilliant memories, including his last shot in a Chelsea uniform against Bayern and his performance in the FA Cup versus Liverpool.
With Drogba gone, Chelsea looks to rebuild for the future and with its current roster and its pursuit of Porto superstar Hulk, it looks like it could be another very promising year in west London.
So with that in mind, here is my prediction for the Blues’ starting XI for that opener against the Latics, in a recommended 4-2-3-1 formation to accommodate the new-found wealth of riches in the midfield.
One of the top goalkeepers in the world—and he certainly proved it in the Champions League and for his native Czech Republic in Euro 2012—the 30-year-old is an irreplaceable key veteran member of Chelsea.
And the good news for Blues fans is that the 6’5” Čech signed a four-year deal on May 28 to stay at Stamford Bridge, making sure the defense will be as airtight as it can be for years to come.
The five-time Czech Footballer of the Year was absolutely fabulous in his first season at Chelsea (2004-05), where he had a mind-boggling 1,024-minute run between December and March without allowing a goal to set a new top-flight record in England and won the Barclays Premiership Golden Gloves award.
Čech is a no-brainer pick here as a starter and will be a big reason I think the Blues can qualify again for the Champions League next year with a top-four finish in the EPL.
Ross Turnbull and Henrique Hilario should again serve as Čech’s backups.
He may have botched one of the most crucial penalty kicks in English national team history against Italy in the Euro 2012 semifinals on Sunday but you would be hard-pressed to find another left back as dependable as the 31-year-old Cole.
And just ask his running mate, Frank Lampard, how great Cole really is.
“I have seen him go toe to toe with the best names in the game and have never seen anyone get the better of him,” Lampard said in a recent interview in The Sun. “Not Lionel Messi, not Cristiano Ronaldo, not anybody.”
Stifling two of the best players in the history of the sport aside, Cole is crucial because he knows, and accepts, his role of the team perfectly.
Last season the English star, who is a distant cousin of Mariah Carey, averaged 2.5 tackles per match and was second on the team in assists and third in passing accuracy.
Another easy name for manager Roberto Di Matteo to pencil in on his starting lineup card every week.
He may have had his troubles both on an off the field last season, but trust me, there’s no way Chelsea wins the Champions League and the FA Cup without the superb play of its fantastic captain.
Another Englishman, the 31-year-old, 6’2” Terry had more passes than anyone on the Blues last season as well as the highest rate of passing accuracy and six goals in EPL play. No small potatoes there.
And unlike Cole, Terry has been know to put the ball in the back of the net a time or two with 49 career goals to date.
Along with Čech and Frank Lampard, Terry is the heart and soul of this team and I fully expect him to retire as a Blue someday.
He defines best what it is to be a Chelsea player—just get it done at all costs.
Probably the most enjoyable player to just watch play on the pitch for Chelsea and the easiest to pick out because of his lion’s mane of hair, this 25-year-old Brazilian is turning out to be another wonderful signing.
Born David Luiz Moreira Marinho, the 6’2” Luiz has pretty much cemented his spot in Chelsea’s starting XI with his play over the past two seasons.
Luiz, who scored in the Champions League penalty shootout against Bayern Munich, seems to want to push forward much and at times plays like an aggressive midfielder or forward and he does make a silly mistake every once in awhile.
But despite having solid defenders like Gary Cahill, Ryan Bertrand and Paulo Ferreira on the roster, Luiz, who led the team in interceptions last season, deserves this spot and should be there for years to come.
The toughest player on Chelsea’s roster, the 6’2” Serbian international may be the most questionable selection as a starter on defense but it would be tough to argue that he doesn’t belong in the starting lineup.
The 28-year-old, who is being sought after by the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Napoli and the Russian Premier League’s Anzi Makhachkala, should be staying put in west London and his agent has denied that Ivanović is going anywhere.
With Ivanović, Cole, Terry and Luiz as its back four and Cahill, Bertrand, and Ferreira on the roster, Chelsea again boasts one of the best defenses on the planet and one which will again provide fits for the opposition.
And we all know the old adage that defense wins championships.
Always a key cog in Chelsea’s midfield, Lampard tied for the team lead in goals (11) last season in EPL play and now ranks third on the Blues all-time list behind Kerry Dixon and Bobby Tambling.
The vice captain may be showing signs of slowing down a bit, but not enough to keep him out of Chelsea’s starting lineup.
The former West Ham player is known for his durability and set an English record playing in 164 consecutive matches between Oct. 13, 2001 and Dec. 26, 2005.
And according to the statisticians at Opta, the 34-year-old box-to-box midfielder graded out as the best player in the EPL from 2000 to 2009. And that’s really saying something.
With Drogba now gone and Fernando Torres still trying to gain some confidence and consistency, Lampard, who finished third on the team in assists and second in key passes, provides a much-needed veteran leader on the offensive end of the pitch.
Lampard also won the most Man of the Match awards for Chelsea and is one of the best penalty kick scorers in the Premiership, scoring a team-record 42 times from the spot for the Blues.
The English international also provides for all the young and new midfielders at Stamford Bridge his leadership—something that will undoubtedly benefit the rebuilding squad in the long run.
Chelsea’s fastest player, 25-year-old Brazilian Ramires gets the nod here from me over John Obi-Mikel because of his superb play last season.
Ramires led Chelsea in successful dribbles per game as well as tackles and should start here because of the Blues acquisition of Eden Hazard and pursuit of Hulk as those two, along with Juan Mata, are better suited to an advanced midfield position with this roster.
Should the attempt to land Hulk fall through, Ramires, who scored five goals in league play last year, can be moved upfield with Obi-Mikel or Raul Meireles—both being able play this more defensive position on the field.
Ramires won the Chelsea Goal of the Season award for a second straight year and also captured the Players’ Player of the Year award, no small feat for a guy only playing in his second season at Stamford Bridge.
The big acquisition by owner Roman Abramovich and management to date, the 5’7” Hazard just has to start with all his talent. Period.
The 21-year-old Belgian is known for his creativity on the pitch, technical ability and speed and can play central or wide—a good option for Di Matteo should Mata need a rest or be unable to start.
Hazard signed with Chelsea in a deal worth £32 million and he will join the squad when pre-season training begins in July and joins a growing list of prospects from Belgium who have thrived recently in European professional soccer.
He scored a very impressive 20 goals and had 17 assists for Ligue 1’s Lille last season, won a mind-boggling 14 Man of the Match awards and will no doubt see himself as the star of the show in west London.
And if Hazard can live up to the hype and achieve even half of what he did in France, then it will make it a little bit easier for Blues fans to forget that one of their best players ever just flew the coop for China.
The perfect player to play the central advanced midfield position, Mata was very consistent for the first three-quarters of the EPL season and was justly named Chelsea's Player of the Season.
The 5’7” Spaniard averaged three key passes a match in that role for Chelsea and had six goals and 13 assists for a side that seemed to lose its ability to generate goals as it had in previous seasons.
With scorers like Torres, Lampard, Daniel Sturridge, Hazard and hopefully Hulk, Mata is the ideal playmaker and fits the Barcelona mold of the short passing and pressing soccer player Abramovich wants for Chelsea’s future.
Like Luiz and Ramires, Mata is another young guy (24) who is proving to be a great signing.
At the top of Chelsea’s summer wish list, Porto superstar Hulk has been rumored to be heading to Stamford Bridge, although recent reports reveal that the bidding war between the Blues and Ligue 1’s Paris Saint-Germain may not have actually begun quite yet.
In a recent story in The Sun, Porto president Pinto da Costa says that claims of a £30 million deal for the 25-year-old are just rumors.
"At this point, there have not been any offers made to Porto, or anyone related to Porto, with regard to Hulk,“ da Costa said. “That is the truth, despite what the papers say about Chelsea and PSG.”
A report in The Daily Mail claimed that PSG are prepared to pay almost £43 million for Hulk while another newspaper, Portugal’s Diario Noticias, said the biggest obstacle to Chelsea signing the talented Brazilian is a dispute over who should pay Hulk’s agent Teodoro Fonseca for his five percent stake in him, along with Uruguayan club Atletico Rentistas who own a 10 percent stake.
All these rumors and speculation aside, it does seem the super striker may be willing to accept less money than the alleged £43 million PSG offer to play in west London as his quotes in The Telegraph reveal.
"Chelsea are the current European champions and would please any player and I'm no exception,” Hulk said. “I'd be happy if the transfer happened.”
And another story, and a good sign for Blues fans, is that Hulk reportedly doesn't want to move to Paris.
Tottenham is also rumored to be in the mix so the summer’s biggest catch will either be playing in London, Paris or will stay at Porto. And I highly doubt the latter.
If Hulk does end up on Chelsea, and I’m guessing he will, then I think he would be best suited on a wing in an advanced midfield position alongside Mata and Hazard—a very nasty and young threesome for any defenses to try to contain.
And if if you haven’t seen what Hulk can do on the pitch, I strongly suggest you take a couple of minutes and watch this video.
I’m sure you’ll be drooling by the end.
If there’s a player in this proposed starting XI who is capable of not living up to his potential and dragging the team down this season, it is once again Torres. And I can already hear you Torres apologists clicking away on your little keyboards to have your say on the much-hyped Spaniard in the below comments section. Fair enough.
Never happy with his role on the bench last season, El Niño whined a little bit too much for my taste for an individual playing in a team sport. And should have former manager André Villas-Boas or Di Matteo ever decide to consistently start Torres over Drogba up front, well, then no FA Cup and no first-ever Champions League title folks.
Earlier this month, Juventus made a reported bid for Torres who shortly after the Champions League win complained that he didn’t want to play second fiddle to Drogba.
But likely knowing the aging Drogba was heading to China for the big payday, Blues chief executive Ron Gourlay downplayed the Torres comments and told the 28-year-old he wasn’t going anywhere.
Torres should have been more mature about it all, but as one of the highest paid footballers in English history the former Liverpool star let his ego and emotions rule when he should have been basking in the glow of the club’s first Champions League crown.
He also should have gotten a clue of his future role with Chelsea when the team posed for a spring photo with the new 2012/13 kits that included himself, Čech, Lampard and Sturridge—three players he had to know would also be around next season and for the near future.
And we all know that the last thing Abramovich and management want to do is admit their biggest signing to date has been a bust. Too much pride. So to me, it came down to keeping either Drogba or Torres. The somewhat young buck making the big bucks won out and Torres has been given the chance to show what he can do this season for the Blues.
With just six goals in 46 EPL appearances for Chelsea, Torres needs to get off to a good start and I think that it all starts in his head.
To finally find that groove again and help lead the team to its full potential, he needs to score twice as many league goals and capitalize on those prime opportunities as well as hustle back and play better defense and control the ball and pass more effectively.
Should all this happen and we see the Torres of old, then the sky’s the limit for Chelsea.
Should he stumble again, well, at least Sturridge—who tied for the team lead with 11 EPL goals—and Romelu Lukaku or possibly Hulk can fill the void and give the Blues a striker that scores again.
But should the club sign Hulk, and he and Hazard shine as goal scorers this season, we will see what Torres is really made of and then we can determine if his problem is more psychological than physical.
There’s absolutely no room for jealousy in a team sport. Especially when you’re the defending European champs.
Let’s hope he returns to the Torres of old.
So the quest to sign Hulk will heat up in the very near future but one of the smartest moves management attended to right away was signing Di Matteo to two-year deal.
Di Matteo turned a mediocre year upside-down and helped lead the team to maybe its most memorable season it team history. Who would have thought in March that this team could win the Champions League and qualify for it again this season? Exactly.
RDM will also have some other key players at his disposal.
Management is scheduled to hold talks with veterans Michael Essien and Florent Malouda and the Blues started out its summer shopping spree by signing 23-year-old winger Marko Marin from Werder Bremen in Germany’s Bundesliga.
Also waiting in the wings—and a talent whose development may be stifled a bit by the signing of Hazard and potentially Hulk—is 18-year-old Brazilian attacker Lucas Piazon who was named Chelsea’s Young Player of the Year and was a big part of the Blues FA Youth Cup Final-winning side.
With or without Hulk, Chelsea is loaded and I don’t think the team needs to pursue anyone else. In fact, the roster is so deep that a couple of quality players may again be loaned out to other clubs to further their development.
So get ready. It will be another interesting year and with all the different competitions the Blues will be playing in thanks to the Champions League win, expect some more silverware this time around.
Please leave your own ideal starting lineups and thoughts on the Torres and Hulk situations or anything else you want in the comment section below.
And we all know by now that speculating on Chelsea and all its transfer rumors has evolved into a year-round thing. For better or for worse.
Follow me on Twitter: @KevinStott11