Premier League Preview: Chelsea
Lessons from last season
The 2013-14 campaign did not yield any trophies, a state of affairs that no previous manager has been able to survive under the attentive glare of owner Roman Abramovich. But the reason for this apparent change of tack from the Russian is clear. The acquisition last summer of arguably the world's greatest working manager would have been rendered pointless had he been shipped out at the earliest opportunity; it would also have made a farce of Chelsea's stated aim of building a new squad and identity to go with it. Patience is required for such a transition to take place effectively, and the development of the team over the past 12 months has been very encouraging.
Mourinho showed a willingness to play progressive, attacking football as well as the intelligence to eschew those principles should he be required to do so in order to get results. With more weaponry at his disposal for this coming season, there should be less need to make so many compromises.
Predicted starting lineup
To augment their squad, Chelsea have gone shopping in Spain and have made some excellent purchases. Diego Costa has arrived as the next contender attempting to become the prolific striker that has been so desperately needed, a position that has been vacant since Chelsea last won the Premier League in 2009-10. Preseason impressions have been excellent, with his combative nature complementing his accuracy in front of goal.
Filipe Luis has swapped the Spanish capital for life in London and will add further steel to an already miserly defence, as well as an ability to raid down the left flank. Cesc Fabregas' arrival from Barcelona is arguably as important as Costa's, filling the void for a creative central midfield player that has been evident over the past couple of seasons. His ability to both score and create could be a crucial element behind any success the Blues might achieve this season.
Finally, Thibaut Courtois has returned from his loan spell at Atletico Madrid to challenge Petr Cech's previously undisputed status as No. 1, with the suspicion being that the young pretender will win the battle with his more senior teammate. But whichever way Mourinho chooses to go, Chelsea will have a world-class goalkeeper.
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Chelsea's defence was pretty special last year and was the driving force behind their title challenge, yet it could be still eclipsed over the next nine months despite losing Champions League-winning heroes Ashley Cole and David Luiz. John Terry returned early to preseason to ensure that his Indian summer continues, and the aforementioned Luis adds experience and composure to a well-drilled unit.
Creativity will not be in short supply given Eden Hazard and Oscar's presence, while Andre Schurrle should provide stiff competition for the starting lineup given his stellar performances at the World Cup for deserving winners Germany. And as hinted at above, there is no team in the world that can boast a pair of goalkeepers of the standard of Cech and Courtois.
The Blues might have brought in Costa to try to solve their striking dilemmas, yet they are potentially just one bad challenge away from having to rely on the hapless Fernando Torres once again. The returning Didier Drogba will add leadership and nous as well as the odd goal, though at 36 years old, it is too much to expect him to produce the goods on a weekly basis, especially given that he is already out with an injury sustained in the friendly with Ferencvaros.
With Romelu Lukaku opting to shirk the challenge of fighting for a place in a Champions League team, the Blues are short of depth up front, and failure to add another to their ranks before the transfer window closes could come back to haunt Mourinho. There is still time to act, though. QPR's Loic Remy is available for 8.5 million pounds, which is surely worth a punt despite Liverpool pulling out of a deal to sign him last month on medical grounds.
Manager - ESPN FC profile
There seems to be a groundswell of opinion among rival fans that Jose Mourinho is "not special any more," though that attitude appears to have been adopted out of hope rather than conviction. True, English football is not used to seeing him fail to lift a trophy, with him having won in each of his three full seasons during his initial spell at Stamford Bridge, though he did come pretty close in the two biggest competitions last season with a disjointed squad that was in transition.
Mourinho manages to extract every drop of talent and toil from his players, and having already spent a year working with most of them, they should have ripened into exactly what he wants. The Special One is a born winner, and he will be determined to reassert that fact as soon as possible.
Given the two remarkable seasons he has already had since joining the club Hazard will certainly be a crucial element for Chelsea this season, though the individual who could ultimately prove to be the most important to the team is Costa. While Hazard is undeniably the most talented player, there is an abundance of creative talent in the squad that could offset, if not exactly replace, any potential absence on the Belgian's behalf.
Costa, meanwhile, will be asked to carry the vast majority of the striking burden due to the paucity of effective alternatives. The 25-year-old is far more comfortable in the role of lone striker than his international teammate Torres and will be asked to stretch defences, work the channels and hustle centre-backs. Moreover, he will absolutely relish the challenge.
In those terms, he is exactly what Drogba used to be in his pomp and what Torres has failed to evolve into despite his three and a half years at the club. Costa should provide the fulcrum for the attacking midfielders to work around while also offering a clinical edge as exhibited by his excellent preseason strikes against Olimpija Ljubljana and Fenerbahce. Keep him fit and he could prove to be the missing piece in the title-chasing jigsaw.
Predicted finish: First
Last season Chelsea were a team in transition with a new manager and a squad overloaded with diminutive creators but short on central midfielders and potency in front of goal. Yet they still came within four points of Premier League winners Manchester City and should arguably have won it given the positive results against their title challengers. Now that the problem areas have been plugged and the squad significantly improved there is no reason they should not take the next step and reclaim the trophy they last won four years ago.
Of course, City themselves will once again be a powerful rival, while Louis van Gaal's Manchester United will be a vast improvement on David Moyes' version, especially with their players relieved of European duties. Liverpool cannot be discounted, though the loss of Luis Suarez and the added workload provided by Champions League qualification might dilute their thrust. Arsenal can never be totally ignored either, though one Alexis Sanchez does not make a summer.
Should the squad reach its potential, there is every chance that Chelsea will win their fifth title and that Mourinho will once more enshrine his reputation as the Special One.