English fans didn’t really know what to make of the hiring of Carlo Ancelotti last season by Chelsea. Sure, he had plenty of success with AC Milan, but in recent times, Ancelotti was unable to figure out how to beat Inter Milan in Italy. In his final year there, he was beaten out for the Scudetto by none other than Jose Mourinho, still revered by the Blues faithful. A first league title in five decades will do that for you.
What became quickly apparent was that Ancelotti was no Mourinho. But as time went on, he proved (gasp) that might not necessarily be a bad thing. Yes, Mourinho – somewhat embarrassingly for Ancelotti – knocked Chelsea out of the Champions League by winning at Stamford Bridge, but Ancelotti was strong enough to stay the course, and eventually the Blues not only had their first Premier League title since Mourinho exited stage left, but had the FA Cup as well, and did it with some style, becoming the first Premier League team to score 100 goals (103).
It’s been a rocky preseason, culminated by the Community Shield loss to Manchester United last week, but Ancelotti – ever steady – doesn’t seem concerned. While they shouldn’t drop off, there are holes, and that might be just enough to force Chelsea to relinquish their newly-won crown:
2009-10 standing: 1st
Gaffer: Carlo Ancelotti (2nd season)
Best new signing: Ramires – As of this writing, Ramires isn’t officially a Blues player, but it seemed that all that had to be done is dot the i’s and cross the t’s. It will be interesting to see how Ancelotti deploys the young Brazilian, who is very versatile in the midfield. Does he put Ramires in the “Makalele role”, and let him fight it out with John Mikel Obi for that spot? Does he move him alongside Frank Lampard and move Michael Essien into Mikel Obi’ spot? Or does he play Ramires wide right at the expense of Salomon Kalou? What he certainly gives is some depth to a rapidly aging and thinning Chelsea roster.
Biggest loss: Ricardo Carvalho – Carvalho wasn’t a regular last season, so it wasn’t a huge surprise he is off to Real Madrid to rejoin Mourinho, but it leaves a big depth problem for Chelsea in the center of their defense. Alex will start the season injured, meaning it’s just John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic among experienced players at that position. If one of those two goes down, I’m not really sure where they go? And with Petr Cech’s health uncertain, Chelsea – like Arsenal – has some questions in the back.
Key player: Michael Essien – Somehow Chelsea won the double largely without Essien, who went down with a hamstring injury then a knee strain, which kept him completely out of the second half of the season (and the World Cup for Ghana). I find it hard to believe that the Blues will be able to do the same this season with Michael Ballack and Deco no longer on the roster.
Essien has looked good in the preseason, and may allow Ancelotti to play him in a holding midfield role, where he should be able to provide more offense and continue to be one of the best tacklers on the planet. Essien has never really had a regular role for an entire season with Chelsea, and their fans hope he’s in for a healthy breakout season.
Random stat: Who says no one scores goals anymore? Chelsea’s 103 league goals last season were the most in the top flight of English football since 1962-1963 when Tottenham did it (playing more games). If that wasn’t impressive enough, look at the GF column of the table of the Premier League champions in the last few seasons. In 2008-2009, Manchester United won the title with just 67 goals scored. Chelsea’s last title (2005-2006) saw them score just 72 times, and they had the same number the year before – their first title under Mourinho. Like I said, a little different style under Ancelotti.
At what point does their age catch up with them? It does seem like we’ve been asking that for a few years, but Didier Drogba, Nicolas Anelka, Lampard, and Terry are all moving toward the age when retirement becomes an option, and Florent Malouda, Paolo Ferreira, and Ashley Cole – three players Ancelotti will need to log a lot of minutes over the next nine months – will all be 30 or over by the end of the year. It stands to reason that at least one of those guys listed will break down at some point this season, and can one of Chelsea’s young players fill that void? It’s a big question mark.
Along the same lines, it’s unreasonable to think Drogba (29 goals) and Lampard (22) can repeat last season’s offensive output. By the way, those 51 goals would have been 8th in team scoring last season, just one goal behind Aston Villa. Ferreira might be a weak link at right back until they can find someone else to take that spot.
Chelsea is largely intact from the team that finished last season. Even though Ballack, Joe Cole, Deco, and Carvalho are gone, they stayed in the periphery for most of last season. It’s clear Ancelotti believes in his youngsters, and the signings of Ramires and Yossi Benayoun fill needs.
One thing Ancelotti does have in common with Mourinho is home form. Aside from a disastrous afternoon against Manchester City, the Blues dropped only one other point at Stamford Bridge all season, and Ancelotti picked up a maximum 18 points and the six “Big Four” matches.
Essien’s return will also be a big boost, if he’s healthy all season, he will make things much easier for Lampard and just about everyone else. Drogba is Drogba and should get his goals. Alex, if healthy, has proven competent at center back and if Chelsea can ever get Jose Bosingwa (who missed all of last season) back, it’s a dangerous outfit.
The preseason is the preseason, but it does look like Chelsea has a few more questions than a champion usually does. Their depth has clearly taken a hit in the last couple of seasons, and Ancelotti will probably have to turn to one of his young kids at some point in a big spot. I mentioned Lampard’s and Drogba’s contributions last seasons, but Malouda was also on fire for much of the campaign as well, a tough form to repeat this time around.
Still, Drogba and Lampard are still two of the best at what they do, Ancelotti is a fine manager, and Chelsea certainly has the players to repeat. But I think they’re going to come up one spot short to one team that might just a little younger and a little hungrier than they are.