AUG 28 — This may sound rather foolish considering they are reigning European champions and currently sitting pretty at the top of the Premier League table with a 100 per cent record, but I still believe trouble lies ahead for Chelsea and their manager Roberto Di Matteo.
Di Matteo walked into a no-lose situation when he replaced Andre Villas-Boas midway through last season. The team was struggling in the Premier League, on the verge of exiting the last 16 of the Champions League after a 3-1 first-leg defeat at Napoli, and beset by rumours of internal strife between the manager and dressing-room leaders John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba. Things could only get better.
But take a look at the bigger picture and it becomes apparent that Villas-Boas should not be judged too harshly for his tenure at Stamford Bridge.
Sure, results had been poor and AVB’s reign was anything but successful, but that was only to be expected when you consider that he had supposedly been appointed to oversee a long-term significant restructuring of the club’s squad and playing style.
After years of too frequent managerial changes and with an ageing group of players, Villas-Boas was touted as the man to lead Chelsea into a bright new era, which was meant to be based on the focus on youth development and free-flowing football showcased by Barcelona.
Instead, Villas-Boas was given little more than six months to carry out his work as trigger-happy owner Roman Abramovich lost his nerve at the first sign of trouble and took a firm step back into the past with the appointment of Di Matteo — one of the old guard who was on decidedly friendly terms with many of the players.
Employing a mate of the players who were supposedly being gradually ushered out was no way to proceed with a transitional period, but it did undoubtedly succeed in creating a short-term revival as the players went back to what they knew best and galvanised themselves around the powerful leadership of Terry, Lampard and Drogba.
The rest is history as the Blues battled their way to an unlikely Champions League triumph and also added the FA Cup to give Di Matteo an impressive haul of two trophies in less than three months.
Those unexpected and dramatic few weeks at the end of last season will live forever in Chelsea’s proud history, and rightly so, but they will do little to mask the fact that the squad still needs to be overhauled. That applies particularly to Drogba, Lampard and Terry, who have given the team its identity and, more than that, largely defined Chelsea for many years.
Drogba has already gone, of course, quitting at exactly the right time to preserve his status as an iconic club legend. Lampard (34 years old) and Terry (32 in December) are still there, but if Chelsea want to enjoy a bright long-term future they need to be moved on.
That’s not to suggest that they should be dispensed with altogether — they can still perform at a high level — but they need to become prominent members of the supporting cast rather than the lead characters, in the same way that Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes have done at Manchester United.
New stars, new heroes, new leaders need to be found — players who can guide the way towards a new philosophy of play and a strong collective identity.
Two players, in particular, have the opportunity to play a big part in that process: Fernando Torres and Eden Hazard.
With Drogba’s departure, Torres is now — for the first time — secure in the knowledge that he is the first-choice striker at Stamford Bridge. Until this summer, he has been trying to fit in, competing with Drogba in the hierarchy and looking to find a role for himself: now that role is clearly defined and ready for him to firmly claim as his own.
The Spaniard has responded well so far with three goals in four games (including one in the Community Shield defeat to Manchester City), although his general level of play has been below the supreme standards he regularly reached during his time with Liverpool.
If he can continue to score goals and, perhaps more importantly, become a genuine catalyst and talismanic inspiration for Chelsea in the same way that he was at Anfield, it would enormously help the Blues’ transition to life without Drogba.
The other player who can fulfil a similar purpose in midfield is new signing Hazard. The Belgian playmaker was the outstanding player in the French Ligue 1 over the last two seasons, and the early indications are that he has every capability of becoming a major success at Stamford Bridge after his summer move from Lille.
His penalty against Newcastle on Saturday was his first goal for the Blues, and he also has a few assists to his name after a string of highly impressive performances.
It’s too early to say for sure, but Hazard could be Chelsea’s future, assuming the role of midfield leader that has been jealously guarded by Lampard throughout much of the last decade.
So Chelsea already have the players — potentially — to allow them to ease the old guard into more peripheral figures. But a lot of that will depend on the decisions taken by the manager, and it remains to be seen whether Roberto Di Matteo is the right man to lead that process. Is he too deeply wedded to Chelsea’s old way of doing things? Is he too close to the players that he needs to replace?
The fact that he was only given a one-year contract clearly suggests that Abramovich feels the answer to both questions might be: “Yes.” And if that happens, Di Matteo will surely be shown the door before too long.
For Di Matteo to enjoy long-term success at Stamford Bridge, rather than relying on the same old spirit and identity that has served them so well in the past, he has some tough decisions to make.
Decisions like leaving out Lampard and Terry in the big games and giving new stars a chance to emerge (Cahill and Luiz in defence; Oscar, Hazard and Romeu in midfield).
These, of course, are the kind of decisions that cost Andre Villas-Boas his job. It might cost Chelsea a few points in the short term, but if they genuinely want to forge a new team and a new philosophy, it has to be done.
Nine points is a great start, but it’s time for a new Chelsea. Di Matteo has to prove that he is capable of providing it.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.