Chelsea’s last campaign offered a telling commentary on the high stakes of modern top-flight football and the narrowness of the margin between success and perceived failure. For the Blues it was a season dominated by a generally unloved manager’s attempt to take the team beyond where his adored predecessor had led them.
Following Jose Mourinho at Stamford Bridge was always going to be the tallest of orders but anyone other than Avram Grant, with any boss other than Roman Abramovich, would probably have been lauded for taking Chelsea so close to treble glory. Beaten in extra-time of the Carling Cup final; edged out by two points in the Premier League title race despite accumulating 85 points (the first time a team had gathered so many without securing the title); and beaten in a penalty shoot-out after extra-time in the Champions League final – Grant’s stab at footballing immortality with the Blues was heroic.
But it was failure nonetheless, and his reward – after being doubted, derided, and damned with faint praise – was the sack, within a couple of days of John Terry’s kick hitting the post in the Moscow shoot-out to hand Manchester United the coveted European crown.
Chelsea had lost only two Premier League games out of 32 under Grant – his first, against United at Old Trafford, and then against Arsenal at Ashburton Grove. In the critical later stages of the season the Blues beat both the Gunners and United at Stamford Bridge – and indeed they kept the title race against Sir Alex Ferguson’s side alive until the final day of the campaign, which said much for their determination and consistency.
They were relentless in their pursuit of the title, overhauling Arsenal at the end of March to go second and coming within a whisker of overtaking the defending champions. But two dropped points in a home draw against Wigan, for whom Emile Heskey scored a 91st minute equaliser on 14th April, proved costly, although United’s significantly better goal difference was always worth an extra point if push had come to shove.
That reflected the Achilles’ heel of Grant’s side: they played without the attacking flair and panache of United or Arsenal, and in fact scored fewest goals among the top four. Although they kept a remarkable 21 clean sheets at the other end, Abramovich had demanded ‘expansive’ football after Mourinho, but got more of the same prosaic, pragmatic stuff under Grant. Without being able to lace that with silverware, or to win over a sceptical home crowd, Grant was always on borrowed time. Speculation about his future, which reached fever pitch after the Carling Cup final defeat by London rivals Tottenham and an embarrassing FA Cup quarter-final defeat by Barnsley, was a constant accompaniment to Grant’s reign.
His team showed character and resilience, especially defensively, but often struggled for creativity and goals, with Didier Drogba netting only eight in the League, and January import Nicolas Anelka managing only one, though he was mostly played out of position. Dynamic central midfielder Michael Essien also spent too much time filling in at right-back, while the manager failed to get anything like the best out of expensive summer buy Florent Malouda. There was a consequent over-reliance on midfielders Frank Lampard (who had his own injury and personal problems last season) and Michael Ballack (who emerged as the Blues’ most influential player in the final third of the campaign). Their goals and dynamism helped take Chelsea so close to the glittering prizes, though it was symptomatic that pundits and many fans felt their contribution was despite rather than because of Grant’s leadership. That was the burden the Israeli’s perceived lack of charisma saddled him with.
The managerial soap opera at Stamford Bridge was ended when Grant was unceremoniously sacked, and his successor announced during Euro 2008 as Portugal boss Luiz Felipe Scolari. The Brazilian comes in with everything Grant lacked: gravitas, a hugely impressive CV, charisma, the authority that accompanies a reputation as a disciplinarian, and the respect of the players. Scolari is, after all, a World Cup winner who also won the Copa Libertadores twice.
If there are reservations because he has been out of club football for seven years, the risk seems a small one. The 59-year-old has been there and done it before, and if dealing with the English tabloid press is an aspect of his new job that probably won’t appeal, he is unlikely to find it more uncomfortable than dealing with the media in his native Brazil.
Scolari is the fourth Chelsea manager of the Abrasmovich era; the previous three – Claudio Ranieri, Mourinho and Grant – were all sacked despite delivering what at most clubs would pass for relative success. So Scolari knows what to expect, and what is expected: to recapture the Premier League title from United and to win the Champions League for the first time in Chelsea’s history. The other imperative is to achieve both through an exhilarating brand of entertaining, attacking football. Simple really. The key question is: can Scolari adjust to the demands of club football quickly and effectively enough to deliver what’s required in his first season back at the coal-face?
He has got off to a decent start. Drogba and Lampard, both widely tipped to join Mourinho at Inter Milan, are still at the Bridge and seem likely to stat for at least the next season. Portugal full-back Jose Bosingwa, well-known to Scolari, was recruited and waiting for him, and another familiar face, the creative and motivated Deco, has since arrived. Speculation persists that Robinho could yet join them, and that would certainly strengthen their attacking options and sharpen the goal threat, where the Blues were deficient last season. The fans would probably feel happier to have an additional quality striker on board, unless the form of Andriy Shevchenko and Claudio Pizarro has undergone a dramatic transformation over the summer.
As for the departures, Claude Makelele’s return to France should be adequately covered by the emergence of John Obi Mikel in the holding midfield role, while Steve Sidwell, good player though he is, was never really used so won’t be missed. Nor will the transfers of Tal Ben Haim (Manchester City) and Khalid Boulahrouz (Stuttgart) leave gaping holes in Scolari’s forces.
Pre-season has been useful if tiring: the goodwill trip to China and Malaysia was excellent PR but possibly of only limited value to Scolari in terms of preparation. But going on to Moscow for the Railways Cup offered a more pertinent test and, losing another shoot-out in the Russian capital aside, Chelsea can reflect on last weekend with satisfaction. The emphatic 5-0 demolition of AC Milan will have caused many to sit up and take notice, as will Anelka’s four-goal salvo in the rout.
Scolari has said he is more or less clear now in his head about what his starting XI will be for the Premier League opener against Portsmouth, so at least one of the main objectives of pre-season has been accomplished.
Analysis & Prognosis
There will be huge interest in how well and how quickly Scolari fits into his new job. He will have the benefit of the doubt, something Grant never enjoyed; but there will still be the spectre of Mourinho, who won the Premier League and the League Cup in his first season at the Bridge after arriving from Portugal. The parallels are there for direct comparison. His press conferences promise to be entertaining, but it is on the pitch where the entertainment quotient will be most under scrutiny.
The addition of Bosingwa should add genuine right-sided quality to an already formidable defence, behind which Petr Cech is due a bit of luck after a miserable spell, so Chelsea will again be one of the hardest teams to score against.
And in midfield they have a veritable cornucopia of riches. With Essien restored to the centre where he is at his best, Ballack in the sort of form he showed during the latter stages of last season and at Euro 2008, Deco’s vision adding a new creative dimension to Chelsea’s game and Lampard fit and focused, Mikel offering running power and muscle, plus the likes of Joe Cole, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Malouda to provide pace and width on the flanks, Scolari’s challenge will be to find the right blend and balance while keeping all his stars happy.
Anelka fired a warning in Moscow and Scolari may be prepared to play to his strengths, through the middle, at Drogba’s expense in a way Grant hesitated to do. The fact that Drogba is likely to miss the start of the campaign through injury could facilitate that decision. Salomon Kalkou impressed last season but too often chose the wrong option with his final ball, so we can expect an improvement there.
Scolari has indicated that Shevchenko will not be in the starting line-up, at least initially, but the Ukrainian has said he is determined to make an impact at Chelsea and if he is fired up rather than diffident when coming off the bench then he’ll give his manager a useful option.
Chelsea are certain to challenge hard for the title, and with their squad strength in depth and seemingly impregnable home record they are likely to be in the top few places for most of the campaign. They have the playing resources and now, they hope, the right manager to win major honours again. But much will also depend on United, Arsenal and Liverpool, at least, so how Scolari reacts to the Big Four challenge, and how he plots his tactics in the head-to-heads, could prove decisive.
I expect the Blues to be challenging on all fronts until the latter stages, and possibly collecting a cup; but winning the Premier League title at Scolari’s first attempt, after being out of the club game for a long time, might just prove a bridge too far. A top-three finish then, but not first place.
Coach: Luiz Felipe Scolari
Stadium: Stamford Bridge (42,055)
2007-08 Position: 2nd
2007-08 Record: P-38 W-25 D-10 L-3 GF-65 GA-26 GD-39 Pts-85
Jose Bosingwa (FC Porto, £16.2m), Deco (Barcelona, £8m).