Monday, April 26, 2010
EPL title should already be Chelsea’s
The Blues have plenty of reason to feel optimistic — they were magnificent against Stoke, taking the game to their beleaguered opponents from the opening whistle with an adventurous formation that found room for three strikers — Didier Drogba, Nicolas Anelka and Salomon Kalou — as well as attacking midfielders Frank Lampard and Florent Malouda.
Stoke, normally a stubborn defensive unit, simply had no answer; it’s a somewhat mischievous point, but a measure of Chelsea’s dominance was that even Kalou managed a hat-trick — the Ivorian had only scored one previous league goal all season.
It was extremely impressive stuff, but in truth the Blues should already have the championship sown up. If they fail to see off the challenge of Manchester United in the next fortnight, it will have been a major opportunity missed — and an opportunity which may not present itself quite so easily next time around.
From the very beginning of the season, Chelsea have looked like they should be the country’s dominant team. With a galaxy of stars including Drogba, Anelka, Frank Lampard, Deco, Florent Malouda, Joe Cole, Michael Essien and Michael Ballack amongst others, Blues manager Carlo Ancelotti has been graced with a variety of attacking options to inspire jealousy even in Sir Alex Ferguson.
Ancelotti aside, there were no high-profile arrivals at Stamford Bridge during the course of last summer, but there were also no high-profile departures, and that provided the incoming Italian coach with an enviable degree of continuity around which to base his plans.
In stark contrast, the transfers of Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid and Carlos Tevez to Manchester City left current title holders United markedly weaker. Michael Owen and Antonio Valencia were never going to replace the productivity offered by the departing Ronaldo and Tevez, and United’s chief hope would be that Dimitar Berbatov would up his game to fill some of the void — that clearly hasn’t happened.
Of the other challengers, Liverpool never looked remotely capable of continuing their promising form of last season, Arsenal were denied the services of their most important striker, Robin Van Persie, for virtually the entire campaign, and newly-monied Manchester City are still in a development phase.
So if there was ever a season when winning the EPL could have been a relatively straightforward task for a team of Chelsea’s calibre, this was it. The title has been there for Chelsea’s taking, and the fact that they boast a 100 per cent record from their meetings with Arsenal, United and Liverpool suggests they are more than good enough to have waltzed their way to a comfortable triumph.
Instead, they’re left sweating it out until the last two weekends of the season due to the periodic and inexplicable intervention of strangely below par team performances, most recently in evidence when they produced an insipid display in last weekend’s 2-1 defeat at Tottenham. That was Chelsea’s sixth league defeat of the season — more than any title-winning team since Manchester United nearly a decade ago.
Perhaps Chelsea’s occasional dips can be explained by the advancing age of their squad; with Drogba, Anelka, Lampard, Deco and Ballack all pushing the wrong side of 30, maybe they’ve been let down by an occasional lack of combined energy on the days that their usual high standards have deserted them — when they’re playing badly, younger squads can mask their deficiencies with a severe bout of hard running, but Chelsea’s collective age prohibits that.
Whether that’s true or not, the age of Chelsea’s squad is a big concern for the future, and one of the major reasons why it’s so important for them to take their present opportunity.
Deco has already announced his intention to retire at the end of the season, Ballack may well head the same way, and Drogba’s punishing physical style of play can’t continue forever — the next fortnight could represent the final stand for this current Chelsea squad.
But who will replace the ageing stars? In recent years Chelsea’s transfer policy has simply been to spend as much money as necessary, but that approach seems to have softened in the last 18 months as a result of owner Roman Abramovich’s vulnerability to the global financial crash.
In that context, the future might lie with the likes of youngsters Daniel Sturridge and Gael Kakuta instead of a new tranche of imported Galacticos.
And while Chelsea are possibly approaching a downward curve, it’s reasonable to expect Manchester United to become even stronger next season, with Sir Alex widely expected to make a major splash in the summer transfer market for a striker or two (perhaps sacrificing Berbatov as a bargaining tool).
Furthermore, Manchester City — who have twice beaten Chelsea this season — will almost certainly continue to spend heavily during the summer, and rumours are continuing to grow that former Blues boss Jose Mourinho will be lured to Eastlands in place of Roberto Mancini, while Arsenal’s prodigiously talented young squad should be capable of making a more sustained assault on the title next season (especially if Arsene Wenger swallows his pride and adds a couple of feisty ball-winners).
So with Manchester United, Manchester City and Arsenal all showing the potential to get better, Chelsea need to capitalise on their opportunity to win the title now — if they don’t, they might not get another chance like it for a long time.