Chelsea’s first moves of the post-Carlo Ancelotti era have already started to become clear, with talks ongoing between the deposed Premier League champions and Anderlecht’s 18-year-old striker Romelu Lukaku and a £22m bid for Tottenham Hotspur playmaker Luka Modric that was summarily rejected by the White Hart Lane side. Renewal is clearly the order of the day at Stamford Bridge, from the manager on down.
The nucleus that achieved the historic feat of back-to-back titles under Jose Mourinho between 2004 and 2006 and added another crown through Ancelotti’s guidance in 2009-10 has barely altered since the Portuguese first put the pieces in place. The spine of the team, from goalkeeper Petr Cech to striker Didier Drogba, has been together for much of the last seven years, and as the integration of Fernando Torres has born witness, a change in key personnel can be a bumpy ride. The Spaniard may be a special case – a hefty price tag in the middle of a trying season – but parachuting new faces into a squad that has been together for a long time, through thick and thin, is fraught with danger. Whoever the eventual replacement for Ancelotti proves to be – with Guus Hiddink previously the heavy favourite, now replaced by Porto boss Andres Villas-Boas – will have to work hard and quickly to smooth the passage of any substantial additions.
Hiddink would have one advantage over Villas-Boas. The familiarity between the Dutchman and Chelsea’s on and off-field leaders John Terry and Frank Lampard will make everyone’s life a little easier. There will be no need to establish a bond, as the three successful months Hiddink has already spent in west London should take care of that, while the FA Cup won in 2009 has proven to any doubters that the current Turkey national team Coach has what it takes to win trophies in England. Villas-Boas, on the other hand, is something of an unknown quantity. Despite a link with Chelsea from his time working under Jose Mourinho, going from scout to manager is an enormous transformation. Whereas Hiddink has many ticks against his name – proven track record, relationship with senior players, alliance with the owner – Villas-Boas is set to enter a new world. Juggling the superstar players at Stamford Bridge – and egos to match – across a whole season would challenge even Hiddink, the former European Cup winning Coach, not to mention the rookie Portuguese, although the signature of Modric would make the playing side of the new manager’s job a little less stressful.
Chelsea have targeted Modric to add some silk to their steely midfield. The likes of Ramires, Michael Essien and John Obi Mikel are combative and capable footballers, but lack the deft touch and ability to create magic from monotony possessed by Modric. Lampard, now 32, remains dangerous but has always been a scorer rather than a creator of goals, and would feed on Modric’s intelligent play as much as any striker. That leaves Yossi Benayoun, who missed most of last season through injury, and the inexperienced but hugely promising Josh McEachran to provide the ammunition for the forward line. Should Modric cross the capital he could be the player to bring the disparate sectors of the Chelsea team together, capitalising on the industry and stamina of the midfield to bring the best out of the lethal batch of forwards already at the Blues’ disposal. Tottenham will, however, put up strong resistance to losing the hub of their creativity, but the player himself has openly put his future in a blue shirt.
Rumours persist that to snatch Modric from Spurs, Drogba will have to be offered in return. If Drogba were to leave – for Tottenham or anyone else – replacing his 144 goals in seven years would be a monumental task, not to mention to the will to win and iron spirit he also brings to each game. On the back of probably his poorest season at Chelsea – scoring 13 times, his lowest total since joining the club, although a bout of malaria severely hampered much of the campaign – Drogba, at 33, must be considered on the wane. Yet enough vintage Drogba remains to make him a fearsome prospect and perhaps the ideal tutor for Lukaku, should the Belgian head to England. Nevertheless, the struggle to gel with Torres and the winds of change blowing through the club could see Drogba’s days numbered. The chase of the powerful Lukaku, seen by some as a Drogba-in-the-making, suggests Chelsea are preparing for the inevitable, either this season or next.
New faces are expected all around Chelsea, from the manager to the centre-forward. Manchester United have already made significant moves to add youth and quality to their squad while Chelsea are following suit, reportedly chasing Neymar and Jack Rodwell too, but it is the arrivals of Villas-Boas and Modric most craved.
Kevin de Bruyne MID – Genk
Luka Modric MID – Tottenham Hotspur
Jack Rodwell MID – Everton
Neymar FWD – Santos
Romelu Lukaku FWD – Anderlecht