With the 2014-15 Premier League campaign scheduled to kick off in just three weeks' time, Chelsea's preseason preparations are already well underway. By the time they take to the field to face Burnley at Turf Moor on Aug. 18, the Blues will have played no less than eight friendly fixtures and manager Jose Mourinho will have made the most of the opportunity to put each member of his squad under the microscope as he determines which players to take with him into battle.
Within the ranks there is a plethora of youthful talent for the Blues boss to assess, and with many established stars yet to return from World Cup duty, the Portuguese is already giving them the chance to showcase their ability. There are a number of possible outcomes for these youngsters at the end of preseason: returning to one of the development squads, going out on loan, being sold, stepping up.
Last season, Mourinho recognised the emerging talents of Tomas Kalas, Lewis Baker and John Swift by handing them first-team debuts, but with the pressure to bring silverware to Stamford Bridge more acute than ever, he knows there can be no room for passengers. Can any of the current crop of youngsters make a difference? Here are five starlets who need to seize the preseason days.
Courtesy of a stellar goal in the recent friendly with RZ Pellets and a composed, string-pulling performance a couple of weeks ago against Wycombe Wanderers, the prodigious 17-year-old is the young Chelsea player whose name is on everyone's lips at the moment. A tigerish, box-to-box midfield playmaker with a terrifying turn of pace, the Marseille-born Boga arrived at Stamford Bridge as a schoolboy and learned his trade in the Blues' all-conquering development sides.
He has all the attributes Mourinho favours and the capability of transforming a game with his sublime skills. Being benchmarked against the likes of Eden Hazard, Willian, Oscar and Cesc Fabregas would ordinarily see Boga slated for a loan move that would provide him with regular first-team football, but if he continues to shine in preseason, Mourinho may well decide he offers sufficient differential to make the kind of match-winning impact from the substitutes bench that was often lacking last term.
In the Abramovich era, millions have been spent on proven strikers, but in Chelsea colours, the likes of Andriy Shevchenko and Fernando Torres expensively flattered to deceive in front of goal, and since the departure of Didier Drogba the Blues have looked decidedly anemic up front. Diego Costa is the latest big-money signing to try his luck at the Bridge, but what about a support striker?
Last season Mourinho didn't fancy Romelu Lukaku, sending him out on loan to Everton and bringing in wily old warhorse Samuel Eto'o -- meanwhile Torres continued to toil. Among the youngsters, Patrick Bamford, now 20 years old, has enjoyed loan spells rippling the net for MK Dons and Derby County. With Eto'o gone, Torres rumoured to be leaving and a question mark remaining over the future of Lukaku, a good preseason from Bamford might convince Mourinho that he is ready to rise to the challenge in SW6.
A tidy volley that resulted in the opening goal in the 5-0 drubbing of Wycombe served notice of his ability, but he drew blanks against Wimbledon and RZ Pellets. There are plenty of Championship clubs queuing up to take Bamford on loan next season, but making the grade in the Premier League has to be his primary objective, and now is the time to make a telling impression.
Signed by Mourinho from Saint-Etienne for 12.5 million pounds in the January transfer window, 19-year-old centre-back Zouma was immediately loaned back to the French side for the remainder of last season and had been expected to gain additional first-team experience with a loan move next term. With Gary Cahill and John Terry established at the heart of Chelsea's defence, and Branislav Ivanovic available as a versatile deputy, it came as a surprise when Zouma was handed the No. 5 shirt for the coming season.
Nevertheless, with injuries to key players always a concern, and Tomas Kalas on a 12-month loan to Cologne, it was a statement of intent from Mourinho that he views Zouma as being ready for first-team action at Stamford Bridge. Despite this, and the Blues boss saying that Chelsea were through with buying players this summer, speculation is intensifying that Mourinho is readying an impudent bid for unsettled Real Madrid defender Raphael Varane, whom he managed while at the Bernabeu. A continued show of strength by Zouma in preseason will further his prospects next term and water down the Varane rumours.
A two-goal salvo in a blistering second-half display against Wycombe underlined Brown's attacking prowess and highlighted his capabilities to Mourinho. Signed from West Brom last summer as a 16-year-old, Brown had already made his Premier League debut for the Baggies before arriving at Stamford Bridge, where he played a key part in the Blues' under-21 league title and FA Youth Cup triumphs. On the international stage, Brown also starred in the England U17 side that won the European championship in May.
Like Boga, Brown is a fearless player, confident in his own abilities and capable, despite his tender age. With Chelsea targeting four trophies next season, Mourinho could easily accommodate Brown in his first-team squad and utilise him in cup competitions. As the more experienced Blues players return for preseason, Brown will have the opportunity to play alongside them and further establish his credentials.
Of all Chelsea's youngsters, 19-year-old Baker is the player set to profit the most from this preseason if he continues to display the talent he showed last term -- netting 17 goals and eight assists for the Blues' development teams. Mourinho was convinced enough about the player's ability to hand him a first-term debut in January as a late substitute in an FA Cup tie against Derby County, and the Blues' young player of the year simply sparkles in a creative midfield role.
Against Wimbledon this past weekend, Baker was the standout player, contributing three assists and earning the plaudits of captain John Terry. Being the last player to break through the youth ranks to become a first-team player, Terry knows only too well how hard making the transition can be. With his captain's guidance and support on the pitch, and Mourinho's encouragement off it, preseason represents a gilt-edged opportunity for Baker to show he is ready once again for first-team action.