This has not been an easy season for Chelsea FC. A side that has become accustomed in recent times to battle it out with Manchester United for the Premier League title, now finds itself sixth in the table, below Arsenal, Newcastle and Spurs. Their previous manager, Andre Villas Boas, was sacked in March after a run of disappointing results. All this unfolded amidst talk of unrest within the squad and acrimony between the manager and certain senior players.
His assistant, Roberto Di Matteo, was appointed interim manager and the Blues have since went on a great run of 10 wins in 14 games, the most impressive of which was a fine Champions League display against Barcelona in a first leg semi-final win at Stamford Bridge.
With his recent impressive run, Di Matteo has seemingly become a serious contender for the permanent job. The Italian seems to have adopted a more diplomatic approach in dealing with the senior players than Villas Boas did, as well as a more pragmatic playing style – abandoning the Portuguese’s adventurous tactics.
Other names making the rounds are Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola and Laurent Blanc. Rafael Benitez has also thrown his hat in the ring to the general interest of no one in particular. Of all these, it is Blanc and Di Matteo who are arguably the most realistic contenders for the job.
Whether owner Roman Abramovich sticks with Di Matteo or not, it will be interesting to see the side Chelsea will be fielding in 2012-2013. A continuation of the Italian’s 4-2-3-1 formation looks likely yet it is not clear which players will be first choice for any given position.
At 29 and in great form recently, Petr Cech looks set to continue in goal. The centre of defense is solid with David Luiz, Gary Cahill, John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic all very good options. Juan Mata, arguably Chelsea’s most impressive player this season, should remain in his playmaker position just behind the striker.
Elsewhere in the team, there have been debates over who should start for the club. Ashley Cole has long been a stalwart ubiquitous presence at left-back yet has started to show signs of fatigue. At 31, he can’t be expected to bomb up and down the left flank week in week out. His young deputy Ryan Bertand should be an appropriate replacement if his recent displays are anything to go by.
The right-back position has usually been shared between Ivanovic and Jose Bosingwa but the latter’s defending has been very suspect at times. With Ivanovic perhaps needed in the centre of defense at certain stages of the coming campaign, purchasing a full-back, while not indispensible, would definitely help.
In the centre of midfield, Frank Lampard and John Obi Mikel have been forming a solid partnership. While Lampard has predominantly played in a more advanced position throughout his career, a move further back à la Ryan Giggs may help him adjust his game as he moves into the twilight of his playing career. Defensive midfielder Obi Mikel has received praise for his recent performances and youngster Josh McEachran, who will be back from Swansea on loan, is another exciting prospect. Oriol Romeu, the former Barcelona player who had established himself as part of the starting 11 earlier in the season has since been utilized sparingly. Nevertheless, he has impressed when called upon and should expect more playing time next year. Throw in Michael Essien, who is just getting back into form after a series of injuries, as well as Raul Meireles and the possibilities in the centre of midfield become endless.
Moving further up the pitch, the right-winger, or right-sided midfielder spot should be occupied by Ramires. He has recently been deployed there by Di Matteo to great effect, as his pace and work-rate are invaluable. Salomon Kalou is a decent, if unspectacular option on the left, whereas talented recent purchase Kevin De Bruyne could well establish himself on the wings at some point next year. The much-maligned Fernando Torres should be the first option upfront as the lone centre-forward. Despite coming under intense criticism for his abject scoring record for the Blues, the Spaniard has been playing well recently and it is only Drogba’s excellent form that is restricting him to substitute appearances for now. The £50 million man will likely face competition from youngster Romelu Lukaku and Daniel Sturridge. The latter, despite impressing this year on the right, is not a winger. The young Englishman has been complaining often in the press that he prefers the central striker position and it is easy to see why. His selfishness in front of goal can be infuriating at times but throughout the course of this season, he has proven to be more clinical than Drogba and Torres combined. Without his strikes at the start of the campaign, one wonders where Chelsea would be in the table.
Roman Abramovich has never been afraid to spend money in the transfer market, and one wonders who is on Chelsea’s radar. The Blues could definitely use a player such as Athletic Bilbao’s Iker Muniain. Young, talented, with great pace and technique, the Basque winger would be a superb acquisition should Chelsea be able to lure him away from Bilbao.
At right-back, one player who has been attracting a lot of interest is 24 year old Ajax man Gregory Van der Wiel. The Dutchman has already been linked with Chelsea in the past and could prove to be a great asset. Porto’s Hulk would surely be an excellent option as a right-winger. However, with the Brazilian’s buy-out close standing at £87 million, even Abramovich will be loath to spend so much on one player.
Given that Champions League football – and the financial rewards that it entails – is far from a certainty and with UEFA’s Financial Fair Play Regulations looming over their heads, the Blues will probably be looking to offload a number of players deemed surplus to requirements. Drogba may have been in fine form recently but, at 34, perhaps now is the right time for him to leave and preserve his Chelsea legacy. The club should also receive acceptable offers for Florent Malouda, Paulo Ferreira and – arguably – Jose Bosingwa.
And so we are left with many unanswered questions. For starters, who will even be manager at the start of next season? What will Di Matteo have to do to convince Abramovich he is the right man for the job? A top four finish, an FA cup, a Champions League trophy? Will just one of these three be enough?
And what of the team, how will they line up and how much playing time will be accorded to youngsters such as Lukaku, Gael Kakuta and McEachran? How can the latter be considered ready for Chelsea when he can’t even get a game at Swansea? Just how much money will the Chelsea owner be prepared to spend in the summer? Does the manager even have a say in the transfer market? Finally, just how badly will their summer transfer business be damaged should they fail to qualify for next year’s Champions League? The possibilities are endless; it’s never boring at Chelsea FC.