Chelsea FC: Predicting Andre Villas-Boas' Starting 11 for the 2011-12 EPL Season
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Under the leadership of the young and charismatic Andre Villas-Boas, Chelsea Football Club are busy preparing for the new season ahead, as they look to wrestle back the Premier League title from Manchester United, and launch a fresh assault on the UEFA Champions League, a trophy that has eluded them year after year.
It's safe to say that the Blues have not been the most active team in the European transfer market. FC Barcelona have bought a gem Alexis Sanchez, and might just get Cesc Fabregas, whereas Real Madrid have added young talents to their ranks such as Nuri Sahin and Fabio Coentrao.
English big guns Man United, Man City and Liverpool have all made crucial signings, the more prominent of which are Ashley Young, Sergio Aguero and Charlie Adam respectively. Chelsea's only two signings are youngsters Thibault Courtois and Oriol Romeu.
However, what you have at your disposal doesn't matter as much as what you make of it.
There is still enough time to add a few fresh faces. Villas-Boas has clearly said that the what the team needs is evolution, not revolution, and so he will not be making any radical changes. That, of course, is the right way to proceed.
Moving on to what the starting XI will look like, I can't see the manager lining up his side in anything but a 4-3-3 formation. While it is this formation that has brought the club much success recently, it is also one that Villas-Boas deployed with FC Porto on route to the treble last year.
Here's what I think will be the first choice starting XI for the West Londoners in 2011-12.
Goalkeeper: Petr Cech
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This one's a no-brainer, really. Petr Cech is regarded as one of the world's finest keepers. While last season saw many reliable performers let the team down, Cech was often Chelsea's savior.
He played all 38 Premier League games, showing how much faith Carlo Ancelotti had in him, just like Jose Mourinho and every other manager that has followed. It was only fair that he was named Chelsea Player of the Year 2010-11.
At 29 years of age, he is at his peak, and Chelsea fans will not wish to see anyone else take guard between the sticks.
So, Ross Turnbull and Henrique Hilario will continue to fill in when big Pete is absent.
Thibault Courtois has been loaned out to Athletico Madrid, and is expected to be Cech's long-term successor.
Right Back: Branislav Ivanovic
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Many believe this is one of those positions where the club needs to bring in a fresh face. I don't agree. Branislav Ivanovic has made the position his own over the course of two seasons. Defensively astute, he has also improved his attacking play, and was among the best performers last year.
If Villas-Boas can rejuvenate Jose Bosingwa, then he could spark a real competition with Brana for a starting berth. The old Bosingwa could mirror Ashley Cole down the right. But if things don't work, he may be sold.
Paulo Ferreira has been a great servant to this club. Hopefully we will continue seeing him fill in when needed, and give solid performances.
Center Backs: John Terry and David Luiz
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John Terry is an automatic choice. The inspirational skipper bleeds blue. He continues to be one of the league's very best defenders, and is a natural leader of men.
David Luiz aka Sideshow Bob showed everyone in the second half of last season that he is capable of being the permanent replacement of Ricardo Carvalho. He, however, must control his actions and improve his decision-making.
The two have formed quite a partnership. JT's aerial prowess go well with Luiz' uncompromising style of tackling. They have many similar characteristics, such as their anticipation and their on-the-ball ability.
I must add- Alex must not be sold. He is one of the most solid defenders around, and let's not forget his free-kicks. I don't see Luiz starting all the time, and Villas-Boas surely knows that Alex has always made a good partner for Terry.
Ivanovic may occasionally deputize in the position. Jeffrey Bruma has been loaned out to Hamburg, whereas Slobodan Rajkovic has work permit issues.
Left Back: Ashley Cole
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Ashley continues to perform consistently, even as others disappoint. He is the automatic choice here, good in defense, as in attack.
While he's not the most likable guy around, Cole is widely regarded as the world's best in his position.
Poor Yuri Zhirkov. Chelsea and Man United are probably the only two teams in the England where he wouldn't be starting left back. Villas-Boas has, however, used him in midfield in pre-season a few times, and I wouldn't be surprised if the Portuguese tactician gives him most of his opportunities in midfield.
Both Patrick Van Aanholt and Ryan Bertrand have bright futures ahead of them, and I expect one of them to be loaned out this season to a Premier League side, to carry on developing.
Central Midfielders: Ramires, Luka Modric and Frank Lampard
Looks like a really balanced midfield. Ramires adds speed and urgency to attacks, with his directness. He took him time to adjust to English game, but then became the most consistent midfield performer for the Blues in the second half of the season.
Lampard didn't have his best season last time around, but he hasn't lost his ability to score. It's a fact: no midfielder can time those runs the way he does. No other midfielder can assure you of 20 plus goals every season. While the manager won't always give him a spot in the starting XI, he will continue to be an important member of the side.
Luka Modric, meanwhile, would be a perfect fit in Villas-Boas' team, given his ability to dictate play, distribute the ball and initiate attacks. If Chelsea can secure him for £30million from Spurs, I’m sure they won’t regret it. His creativity and slick passing are just the things missing from the Blues’ offensive play, and could bring out the best in the Spaniard Fernando Torres. Striking the deal with a rather reluctant Tottenham is the problem.
All three contribute defensively too.
With injury-plagued Michael Essien likely to miss 6 months of action, Jon Obi Mikel will have to step it up a bit. His occasional pedestrian performances have cost his team in the past, but I can see him coming of age under the guidance of Andre.
Yuri Zhirkov and Yossi Benayoun are creative influences who can play in the center or out on the flank, and will be useful squad players. Benayoun has performed particularly well in pre-season.
Josh McEachran will definitely be more involved, after impressing in 2010-11 and pre-season.
Wingers: Daniel Sturridge and Samir Nasri
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Everyone knows that the Blues lack genuine width high up the pitch. I believe Andre Villas-Boas will acknowledge this fact, and bring in a few pacy and tricky wingers.
Daniel Sturridge's exploits with Bolton and the England U-21 team will not go unnoticed. I see him featuring in a starting role down the right, allowing him to cut inside and shoot with his favored left foot. Why buy a new striker like Neymar (who is anyways not suited to the English game) and let this talented young chap continue rotting on the bench?
Nicolas Anelka and Salomon Kalou aren't guaranteed starters, that's for sure. Many Chelsea fans want them offloaded. But then, they could be useful squad players. Besides, Kalou fares better as a substitute, and Anelka probably realizes he won't feature week-in, week-out.
Malouda's case is a strange one. When inspired, he is one of the finest players in the world. But when not, as it happened to be for the better part of the 2010-11 campaign, then he is a liability. He was selfish at times, which became rather frustrating to watch. I don't expect him to be a regular starter.
Gael Kakuta, if not loaned out, can add pace and trickery to the attack.
Samir Nasri is a possible signing, and Arsenal may also be ready to cash in on a player with only a year left on his contract. His skillful play and ability to leave defenders in his wake would be very useful. Kevin De Bruyne and Adam Johnson have also been linked.
A player I'd love to see don the blue jersey of Chelsea would be Marko Marin.
Centre Forward: Fernando Torres
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The role of center forward will most likely be a direct contest between Torres and Didier Drogba, as pairing them has never worked. Torres has a slight advantage and not just because of that massive transfer fee that continues to be a talking point among the fans. He has age on his side too.
As a Chelsea fan, I hope to see Torres on fire. With a full preseason under his belt, he will be better. Also, I feel that Andre is a better motivator than Carlo Ancelotti and can bring the best out of the man nicknamed El Nino.
Drogba, even at 33, is the most potent attacking threat that Chelsea possesses. Letting him leave isn’t an option. He has shown his ability as an impact substitute too and that is the role he may often be playing next season.
Sturridge, Anelka or Kalou will be filling in if need be.
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As always, I'd love to hear your opinions.