Six games in and the debates have begun. Can the "Big Four" be broken or become a "Big Five"? Who are possible title contenders? What of Chelsea, one of the "Big Four" and a title contender?
First a recap:
Everything has Changed...
Guus Hiddink departed stage left, honouring his promise to Russia and Carlo Ancelotti said Buongiorno to the Bridge. Peter Kenyon has just announced his tenure as chief executive is over with Ron Gourlay his replacement. Andriy Shevchenko phoned home, returning to Dynamo Kyiv where he forged his reputation, sadly seemingly sullied at Chelsea. Other departures included Claudio Pizarro and several young players.
Stamford Bridge welcomed another Russian, Yuri Zhirkov, in a tradition stretching back 64 years. Promising striker Daniel Sturridge was rescued from potential obscurity at England's answer to Real Madrid, Manchester City. Ross Turnbull swapped the Riverside for the Bridge and the challenge of giving Petr Cech some sleepless nights.
...and Nothing has Changed
Yet for all this upheaval, Chelsea are, to all intents and purposes, unchanged. The big names that played regularly have all crucially stayed and signed new contracts, like John Terry. Frank Lampard continues to pitch in with goals. Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba picked up where they left off: building an, at times, unstoppable partnership.
That togetherness and the understanding gained is undoubtedly one of Chelsea's strengths. Another is Chelsea have finally found a long-term manager who gives the players belief. At times under Luis Felipe Scolari, the players seemed to go through the motions. Rumours that several players mutinied at his training methods speak volumes.
Guus Hiddink lived up to his 'player-whisperer' tag and got the belief that anything was possible back. The start so far suggests Carlo Ancelotti is very much Hiddink's managerial cousin. The Stoke result, coming back from 1-0 down to claim three points with a late winner is just one piece of evidence.
In fact, while there have been few surprises thus far, good ones especially, this may well be one. In Ancelotti, Chelsea may have found the manager that not only brings Old Big Ears to Stamford Bridge, but also finally lays the ghost of Jose Mourinho's era to rest.
All That we are, Rise Together
The defence seems strong, conceding just three goals in six games while the Anelka and Drogba partnership is bubbling over nicely. The Fulham game displayed how these two could combine and could yet do so to greater effect. Drogba's equaliser against Stoke was sheer class. Anelka's solo effort against Porto was a marvellous marker for the Frenchman.
The squad appears to have good strength in depth with Joe Cole and Paulo Ferreira both returning from injuries. Ivanovic has proved an adept cover across the back four for Carvalho and Bosingwa. The midfield of Lampard, Ballack, Essien, Mikel, Deco, and Malouda must give Ancelotti the kind of headache managers pray for.
That the team has raced to arguably Chelsea's best start to a season leaves the fans quietly confident. The manner of victories against Stoke and Porto have, it has been noted in whispered tones, carried the hallmark of champions. The only thing vexing Chelsea fans is whether lightning can indeed strike twice. Last year, under the summer sun, Chelsea were scorching. Then the winter blues crept in and the blossoms fell from Mr Scolari's cherry tree.
The warning signs are there. Stoke, and at times Porto, frustratingly swallowed Chelsea's attacks in massed ranks of defenders. The diamond, brilliantly effective against more open opposition, can almost become a hindrance as play gets funnelled into the congested middle. Against Porto, encouragement came from some good wing play by both midfielders and fullbacks, only let down by some scatter-gun crosses by the deputising Ivanovic.
Another strength, the squad, like the diamond, can be a weakness: Little changed with ageing experience. The midfield, particularly with German powerhouse Michael Ballack, can look pedestrian, especially on the break. Deco seems to have constant niggles. The defence has lost Carvalho to injury and the club doctor may well consider asking for payment by the injured. The squad's more 'youthful' players; the energetic Essien, Mikel, and Salomon Kalou, will be departing in January for the African Cup of Nations.
The latter, despite being linked with both Arsenal and Inter Milan, has, unlike most mentioned, not excelled thus far. Kalou is something of an enigma to Chelsea fans. At turns brilliant, at others baffling and disappointing. The striker needs to charge his boots this season if he is stop being promising and become consistent.
All our Trials will be Remembered
Unfortunately the continued ageing of the squad and the worryingly African Cup of Nations shaped hole looming on the horizon may be unavoidable obstacles.
The biggest surprise/shock was undoubtedly bad. UEFA decided Chelsea, in the transfer of Gael Kakuta, had been caught giving the football equivalent of sweets to children. Chelsea were promptly slapped with a transfer ban. The ins and outs and the conspiracy theories have all been discussed in length.
The result is, appeal pending, the squad Chelsea have will be virtually static until January 2011. This limits the adjustments to be made in terms of age and personnel. Anelka and Drogba are undoubtedly great first team choices in the short term, including until 2011, but a younger guaranteed goalscorer is needed long term. The midfield will need good back up as Ballack and Lampard give way full time to Essien, Mikel, Malouda, Zhirkov and Joe Cole.
The Beginning of an End
These though are future concerns. The transfer ban may be hyped as the beginning of the end but in truth it's the beginning of an end. The players and Carlo Ancelotti, through careful squad management, particularly around the African Cup of Nations, can use this opportunity to kick on.
The squad have proved so far they can not only regain the League but they can also emerge from the cloud of banknotes swirling around Madrid and hand UEFA a little footballing bon mot—only teams win titles, never money.
(With acknowledgements to David Bowie Sunday)
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