Guessing Jose's starting XI vs. Burnley
The publication on Wednesday of the Premier League fixtures for 2014-15 created a buzz of anticipation among Chelsea supporters across social media sites, with calendars and diaries being updated and travel plans already being made for the opening game of the season -- which sees the Blues travel to newly promoted Burnley.
With a weekend in the nearby seaside resort of Blackpool being touted by many of the match-going fraternity as the ideal way to get the new campaign underway, proprietors of the pubs, clubs and hotels of the Lancastrian coastal hamlet will be rubbing their hands with a mixture of glee and apprehension at the prospect of hordes of thirsty football supporters staying in town.
The Clarets excelled under the guidance of youthful manager Sean Dyche when gaining automatic promotion from the Championship in 2013-14, but Chelsea will be hot favourites to secure all three points at Turf Moor, and Blues boss Jose Mourinho will settle for nothing less as he begins his quest for silverware.
While 2013-14 was accepted as a "season of transition," this time around pressure will be on Mourinho to deliver from the outset. With the big kickoff a little more than eight weeks away, speculation is intensifying about who will form the nucleus of the first-team squad at Stamford Bridge for what is certain to be a pivotal campaign in the career of the immensely successful Mourinho.
Since his return to SW6, the Portuguese's high-profile dealings in the transfer market have raised plenty of eyebrows as he seeks to rebuild Chelsea within the confines of UEFA's financial fair play regulations. With the cream of footballing talent currently on view at the World Cup finals in Brazil, scarcely a day passes without a player being linked with a move to or from the Bridge. Given all the speculation, with the season opener against Burnley now confirmed, who might make Mourinho's starting XI at Turf Moor?
Chelsea's Belgium international goalkeeper, Thibaut Courtois, on loan at Atletico Madrid for the past three seasons, could find himself under the bar. "When the World Cup is over, Courtois will be coming straight back to Stamford Bridge -- end of story," quipped Mourinho brusquely last weekend when asked about the 22-year-old keeper's future. Could this spell the end of Petr Cech's sensational career with the Blues? Only Mourinho knows the answer.
The central defensive pairing of Gary Cahill and John Terry looks reasonably secure for another season. Terry has enjoyed a renaissance since the return of the Special One, and Cahill has improved immeasurably as a consequence of playing alongside the former England captain.
The full-back berths pose a question. With Ashley Cole released, will Mourinho sign a natural left-back as Cole's long-term replacement, or persist with deploying popular Spain international Cesar Azpilicueta in that position? Recent reports suggest that a bid is being prepared to sign Filipe Luis from Atletico Madrid. Despite his form for Los Rojiblancos, 28-year-old Brazil international Luis failed to make Luiz Felipe Scolari's squad for the World Cup, leaving Blues fans to ponder just how good he is.
The acquisition of Luis would create a selection dilemma at right-back for Mourinho. Branislav Ivanovic has established himself in this position. A tough-tackling approach to the game and buccaneering runs down the flank have made him a cult hero with the Stamford Bridge crowd, but would Mourinho favour the naturally right-sided Azpilicueta? Given this eventuality, Ivanovic is versatile enough to play in central defence, but this would have to be at the expense of Terry or Cahill.
Chelsea's midfield possesses so many glittering jewels that the recent 27 million pound signing of Spain international Cesc Fabregas took many by surprise. A player whose Premier League pedigree stands up to the most rigorous scrutiny, Fabregas was a star at Arsenal before leaving for Barcelona. Followers of the north London club threw their arms up in disgust at the perceived treachery of a former idol, while their counterparts west of the capital initially scratched their heads wondering how Mourinho planned to utilise the Spaniard, who had long been the focus of their ire following his on-field antics playing for Arsenal against Chelsea in the tempestuous 2007 Carling Cup final.
“With the cream of footballing talent on view at the World Cup, scarcely a day passes without a player being linked with Chelsea.”
During that game, while John Terry was being treated for an injury which would see him hospitalised, Fabregas had complained to the referee about Blues supporters tossing harmless stalks of celery in his direction as he prepared to take a corner, and he later grabbed Frank Lampard around the neck as the recently departed Stamford Bridge legend of legends attempted to calm down a mass brawl that subsequently led to three players being sent off.
Assuming that Mourinho intends to play Fabregas week in, week out, it's quite possible that the Blues' manager might line Chelsea up in the same 4-3-3 formation that served him well during his first spell in charge at Stamford Bridge. This would see Nemanja Matic in the holding role with Fabregas and, quite possibly, Ramires playing box to box. This week, Mourinho was swift to play down rumours of the Brazil international leaving for Real Madrid, an indication perhaps of his intentions for the player for next season. Today, however, speculation intensified that Chelsea are readying a bid for Bayern Munich's Toni Kroos. The Germany midfielder, a target for Real Madrid and Manchester United, was impressive for Die Mannschaft in Monday's 4-0 World Cup thrashing of Portugal, and his acquisition would moderate the need to retain the services of Ramires.
Further forward, Eden Hazard has just been handed the coveted No. 10 shirt by Chelsea, suggesting the paper-talk of a 70 million move to Paris Saint-Germain is just conjecture, and with the protracted transfer of Diego Costa from Atletico Madrid likely to go through in time for the start of the 2014-15 campaign, Mourinho finally has the out-and-out centre-forward he has been craving.
The final place in the Special One's new-look 4-3-3 will go to either Willian or Oscar. Oscar has been getting more World Cup game time for Brazil than his Chelsea teammate, but Willian's combative style of play fits the Mourinho template. Against a physical Burnley side that will give no quarter, the Blues' boss will opt for Willian ahead of Oscar.
Chelsea possible starting XI vs. Burnley: Courtois, Ivanovic, Cahill, Terry (c), Luis, Matic, Fabregas, Kroos, Willian, Costa, Hazard
Follow Mark Worrall on Twitter @gate17marco