LONDON: Chelsea have been hailed by the European Clubs Association as its Club of the Year thanks to the victories, notably, over Barcelona and Bayern in Munich which lifted them to the Champions League trophy last May writes KEIR RADNEDGE.
The decisive strike was the conclusive spotkick by Didier Drogba. This was a crucial goal. Victory pulled Chelsea – who had finished sixth in the Premier League – back into the Champions League.
This handed owner Roman Abramovich both the power to attract top-rank new players, such as Eden Hazard and Oscar, to Stamford Bridge to refresh the squad for manager Roberto Di Matteo as well as the status to negotiate lucrative new sponsorship deals.
The latter are significant at a time when Chelsea have to demonstrate a strategy to fall within the constraints of UEFA’s financial fair play.
Chelsea’s last accounts showed a loss of £67.7m but they have since signed new sponsor deals with Gazprom, Delta, Sauber and Audi. Not only these but South Korean electronics giant Samsung has taken up an option to extend its shirt sponsorship until 2015 in a deal worth £15m-a-year.
The most obvious demonstration of Chelsea’s ‘refreshment,’ however, has been out on the pitch. They return to domestic action, away to west London neighbours Queens Park Rangers on Saturday and after the international break, as leaders of the Premier League.
Di Matteo’s team are the only one in the league to have won all three games thus far, scoring eight goals and conceding just two. They hold a two-point lead over Swansea, West Bromwich Albion and champions Manchester City to whom they lost the season-opening Community Shield a month ago.
One year ago Abramovich brought in Andre Villas-Boas with an order to refresh both the style and personnel of an ageing team. Di Matteo has been handed the same mandate but he has proved a far more able diplomat than Villas-Boas whose stubborn approach to player relations is already raising concern at Tottenham.
Di Matteo played at Chelsea alongside the likes of midfielder Frank Lampard and skipper John Terry and, perhaps from his own injury-shortened career, has particular insight into the challenges facing older players. Not that this has affected his judgment in bringing new men through.
Petr Cech continues in goal but reported of the fine form of Belgian loanee Olivier Thibaut at Atletico de Madrid will not have gone unnoticed; Jose Bosingwa has been replaced at right back by Brane Ivanovic – for now – because he was considered inadequate defensively; England’s Gary Cahill will take precedence over the erratic David Luiz in central defence alongside Terry.
John Obi Mikel appears to have made the defensive anchor role his own and Di Matteo has an abundance of engine-room colleagues. Again, versatility is the key. Thus Florent Malouda is out of favour while the likes of Ramires and Juan Mata – quicker, more intelligent, more skilled – take precedence in supporting Lampard.
Villas-Boas wanted Chelsea playing a high line in defence so as to play more attractive football. Di Matteo is more cautious. But he wants Chelsea playing as a tight block whether going forward or back. This is a system and style designed to give greater support to Fernando Torres as lone striker.
The key role, however, is that of partner to the Spaniard. Di Matteo can use Mata or either of the new boys Hazard and Oscar or even maybe Marko Marin when he has finally put his hamstring trouble behind him.
Belgian youngster Hazard has impressed already not so much because of his skill and talent – these were known before he arrived – but his bravery and courage. Hazard has no problem with the physicality of the Premier League which, at 21, is impressive.
Last season Chelsea won the Champions League and finished sixth in the Premier League. The signs, already this season, are that they will not have rely on UEFA’s rules to keep them competing and flying high in Europe’s elite club competition.
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