Chelsea will need to set aside a poor pre-season as they start the defence of their Premier League title at home to promoted West Bromwich Albion on Saturday. Four consecutive defeats have raised valid questions over the reigning champion’s form and squad depth going into the new season. A disappointing European tour saw defensive errors and goalkeeping problems cost the Blues in losses against Ajax (3-1), Eintracht Frankfurt (2-1) and Hamburg (2-1), while Sunday’s 3-1 reverse at Wembley against Manchester United highlighted a lack of match fitness throughout the side in the build-up to Saturday’s competitive kickoff.
The exodus of older players that was expected has come to fruition too, as Michael Ballack, Juliano Belletti and Joe Cole were allowed to leave for free with no contract extensions agreed while Deco departed for Brazilian side Fluminese last week. Ricardo Carvalho’s £6.7million move to join former manager Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid should be the final exit in Ancelotti’s squad reformation ahead of the new season.
32-year-old Carvalho had been linked to a move away from Stamford Bridge last summer to join Mourinho, then with Inter Milan. His exit ends his six-year association with the London club after joining from FC Porto as a Champions League winner in summer 2004. Carvalho quickly established himself as a popular player amongst Chelsea fans winning three League titles during his spell at the club, in which he played over 200 times for the Blues. Exciting Miroslav Stoch joined Fenerbahce for a reported £4.95million while Scott Sinclair left for Championship side Swansea City this week in a deal that could reach £1million after failing to establish himself over a five-year period at Chelsea.
Despite their pre-season difficulties, Chelsea can be boosted by the return to fitness of a number of key players ahead of the new season. Petr Cech should start to ease Ancelotti’s worries in goal, after back-up goalkeepers Hilario and Ross Turnbull littered pre-season with errors and uncertainty. Alex may return to the defence that has looked shaky in his absence, the Brazilian unable to play since July’s 1-0 win over Crystal Palace due to a thigh injury attained in training. Michael Essien’s impressive comeback in pre-season highlighted what Chelsea may have missed in their Champions League exit to Inter Milan last season as the Ghanaian looks to put the injuries woes that forced him to miss the World Cup behind him.
Perhaps most worryingly of all for Chelsea’s rivals, Didier Drogba claims that the surgery on a groin hernia will solve a six-year problem that has troubled the Ivorian since his 2004 arrival from Marseille. “It was a hernia, and for the last six years I have been struggling with it,” the 32-year-old explained after the operation. “I couldn’t really work, it was difficult sometimes for me to play some games. I also had to miss some training sessions. Now I am really happy because it has gone and I feel more free.” Drogba, with 29 goals last season had been expected to miss the opening game but made substitute appearances against Hamburg last Wednesday before appearing from the bench on Sunday at Wembley, albeit looking slightly off the pace.
Saturday’s late kickoff against West Brom pitches the champions against a familiar face as former star Roberto Di Matteo returns to Stamford Bridge as manager of their opponents. His career cut short by injury, he remained involved in the game and has made an impressive start to his young career in club management, taking MK Dons to the League One playoffs in 2008-09, before leading the Baggies to promotion in his first season last year, finishing runners-up in the Championship. Chelsea will hope Di Matteo’s return does not pose them with too many problems.