CAN SCOLARI RISE TO THE CHALLENGES AHEAD?
After the roller coaster ride which suffocated 2007/8’s Barclays Premier League season for Chelsea and ex-boss Avram Grant, Luis Felipe Scolari’s arrival offers light for the new dawn.
Despite no significant transfer movement surrounding SW6’s revolving door, apart from Deco’s re-union with ex-Portugal boss Scolar,i and the departure of long-serving lynchpin midfielder Claude Makelele from Stamford Bridge, the pre-season work has focused on re-affirming ambitions and gathering Chelsea’s current squad together.
Whilst media speculation involving possible departures of striker Didier Drogba and midfielder Frank Lampard have intermittently attempted to upset the applecart, which is typical of the media’s lack of summer sports stories, Scolari has currently delivered the goods.
In pre-season Chelsea have won four from five friendlies, the other a defeat on penalties, and have scored 19 goals and conceded only once. Despite the opposition hardly representing steely resolve of Hadrian’s Wall’s proportions and instead crumbling quicker than a soft mint chewed by Sir Alex Ferguson, encouragement has appeared.
Without Didier Drogba who is receiving treatment for his recurring knee injury, last year’s forlorn marksman Nicholas Anelka has hit the mark by scoring six goals, including four against AC Milan, whilst goalkeeper Petr Cech has shrugged off criticism of his form last season by keeping four clean sheets. Furthermore Lampard, Deco and others have all knitted tightly in to a formidable unit.
However despite the hysteria which could be generated from pre-season, soon the serious business begins. How will Scolari cope with a plethora of egos and a demanding owner? How will Deco forge his presence in a Chelsea midfield already awash with experienced talent? How will Chelsea recover from last season’s disappointment of a trophy-less season?
All of the above will be played out in intense conditions this season. But it remains clear that this team with numerous seasoned professionals must force one final push to deliver what has lacked for the past couple of seasons.
In Jose Mourinho’s tenure at the club it was excusable to win football matches without entertaining when a watertight defensive unit was assured. After last year’s “hockey scores”, as the charismatic ex-boss would have uttered, 4-4 draws at home to Aston Villa and away to Tottenham Hotspur will no longer be acceptable for a team requiring discipline and most importantly – three points.
What Chelsea lacked last year was the ability to either fling from the traps, or shut up shop once a lead had been built. Last minute equalisers from Tim Cahill at home to Everton, or below-par 0-0 draws against Fulham will not suffice for a team in Manchester United’s dominant shadow. Two years without a Premier League trophy needs rectifying and particularly in key areas.
In order for the Premier League trophy to return to Stamford Bridge, and furthermore a first Champions League trophy, our supposed “strength in depth” needs to provide consistently. For instance when Didier Drogba was firstly injured in December and later representing the Ivory Coast at the African Cup of Nations in February, between this period Chelsea had to rely on Nicholas Anelka, Claudio Pizarro and Andriy Shevchenko who scored just 12 goals all season.
Drogba’s influence had not been addressed and if it were not for the return of Michael Ballack from injury in late December and his vital goals which propelled Chelsea in to the title battles which later ensued, the blue train would have ran out of steam by Christmas.
Scolari will certainly have to improve his current squad’s back-up players and ensure morale is high when they are on the sidelines. Although this will be difficult, Scolari is used to rotating egos in his Portugal coaching days and dealing on a host of competitive fronts in club management in Brazil.
However he will need to deal with a defence which looked fragile when captain John Terry was absent, again often unfortunately injured, and Ricardo Carvalho, who to a lesser extent was crocked by niggles. What appears apparent is that Scolari believes in his squad enough as yet, not to invest in reinforcements so far and has instead trimmed it with the ineffective Tal Ben-Haim leaving for Manchester City last week and Steve Sidwell’s transfer to Aston Villa. Obviously he must seem confident in those who remain.
Confident he should be as those remaining have a potent pedigree in order to return silverware to Stamford Bridge. Terry, Lampard, Drogba and Joe Cole have two Premier League winners medals, two Carling Cups, one FA Cup and one Carling Cup medal donning their trophy cabinets and a host of experience in Europe.
But what shall be most interesting is to see how Scolari’s management style adapts to the Premier League. His international style witnessed key substitutions changing outcomes of matches, for example Helder Postiga’s goal against England in Euro 2004 upon his arrival, and utilising his attacking talents in Brazil’s 2002 World Cup campaign through fading light and striker Ronaldo who played a vital role in Brazil’s triumph.
While Scolari appears able to generate the best from those perceivably wayward, he will have to deliver attacking football and results simultaneously this season under demanding owner Roman Abramovich. If Abramovich can call for the head of a manager who delivered six trophies to the Bridge and a first top-flight trophy win since 1955, Scolari therefore has mountains to move.
However Scolari’s reputation as a tough customer rather than a smooth operator may serve him best against Abramovich. Although, he must address the key matches which eluded ex-boss Avram Grant last year. Failing to beat rivals Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal away in the Premier League last campaign will serve as a lesson to be learnt and a significant hurdle to overcome this time around. More so is the need to play key players in their trusted positions, such as Michael Essien’s accustomed midfield role and Nicholas Anelka up front and not rotate his squad incessantly and neither leave supposedly important players like Anelka on the bench too often.
A tough test is afoot both domestically and abroad and perhaps Scolari needs a quick-fire start to the season to impress those watching Chelsea live and on Sky, not least the owners. But with a proven track record domestically, albeit he has not managed in league football for over 10 years, and internationally, one World Cup and a Euro Championships runner-up spot, there is optimism yet.
However all depends on whether this apparently “old” squad will reflect the new manager’s hunger and desire to compete admirably and lift silverware, or whether they will succumb to another season of disappointment.