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Aug 13, 2012

A new era arrives

The commitment of Champions League winners Chelsea to getting themselves back into contention for the Premier League title has been obvious this summer as the Blues have gone on a spending spree that has so far seen them splash over £65 million on players.

The riches of billionaire Roman Abramovich have been distributed far and wide since his arrival in 2003 but, with UEFA's Financial Fair Play regulations set to come into force in the coming years, one feels that, after almost a decade at the helm, the Russian is unleashing the chequebook for what could be a final flurry at Stamford Bridge.

Having dispensed with former coach Andre Villas-Boas - despite the £13.3 million spent on bringing him in from FC Porto - last season's efforts on the pitch under Roberto Di Matteo were nothing short of incredible. A haul of the FA Cup and the long-coveted Champions League proved enough to land the Italian the full-time job, even in the face of a disappointing Premier League campaign in which they finished sixth.

Last year, domestic football played second fiddle to glorious European conquest. While Jesper Gronkjaer's goal on the final day of the 2002-03 season may have been the most important in the club's history in that it paved the way for the 'Roman Revolution', Didier Drogba's final act in a Chelsea shirt - scoring a late equaliser and slotting home the winning penalty in the 2012 shoot-out in Munich - may well have laid the foundations for the next one.

Without the carrot of Champions League football, achieved only by virtue of winning the competition, the Blues would never have been able to attract the talent they have this summer. Marko Marin's arrival from Werder Bremen for £7 million had been agreed before the Munich triumph, but the arrivals of Oscar from Internacional (£25 million) and Eden Hazard from Lille (£32 million) should help to ensure that Chelsea will be among the top clubs in Europe for years to come.

Hazard, in particular, is exactly the type of player required to push the Blues forward in attacking areas. Turning down lucrative offers from the likes of Arsenal and Manchester City, the Belgian has drawn quiet comparisons with Lionel Messi as his small stature and low centre of gravity ensure that he is always in close control and able to move at speed with the ball. A marquee addition was required and, while the Blues lacked some creative thinking last season, it will only be on rare occasions that at least one of Juan Mata, Hazard, Marin or Oscar do not make an impact.

With a central core of Michael Essien, John Obi Mikel, Raul Meireles, Ramires and Oriol Romeu, there is no shortage of options in midfield, but it will be interesting to see how Di Matteo deals with the ageing Frank Lampard. It is fair to say that AVB's attempts to remove the old guard from their prominent position in the dressing room were not successful and, while Lampard's impact on the pitch is waning somewhat, his place as fans' favourite makes him a tough player to leave out. RDM will be required to work out a balancing act in order to keep his star happy while ensuring that the team does not suffer as a result.

A similar problem may manifest itself in defence, where John Terry is another of the Chelsea old guard who will require careful handling. The captain and heartbeat of the backline will certainly not be in danger of his losing his place just yet - David Luiz and Gary Cahill will fight it out for the starting spot beside him - but eyes will be on him as never before and, after showing signs of crumbling under the pressure last season (both mentally and physically), he will need a solid start if he is to command respect once more.

Despite the amount of money spent at Stamford Bridge this summer, defence was not one of the early considerations. The versatile Branislav Ivanovic is able to cover across the board but is likely to start at right-back even if Chelsea seal a deal for Marseille's Cesar Azpilicueta following Jose Bosingwa's release. Ryan Bertrand will provide cover for regular left-back Ashley Cole, and Paulo Ferreira is still able to put in a shift.

However, the usually watertight defence was not at its best last season, and 46 goals conceded - on a par with Sunderland - placed them sixth in the standings. Pre-season failings, most notably against in a 3-1 defeat to Championship side Brighton, exposed a soft core that could well be exploited, and more defensive-minded additions may well arrive before the window slams shut.

As Lampard and Terry remain, the departure of the third Chelsea pillar of recent years, Didier Drogba, may be seen to have ushered in the new era. The £50 million man Fernando Torres has never quite stepped up to the task of leading the line, but the Blues have few other options for a lone frontman, although Daniel Sturridge is keen to prove himself worthy of a central role, even in light of his Team GB failings. Torres will be under immense pressure to recapture his form and, in fairness, showed signs that he might be on the right path at the end of last season. Youngster Lucas Piazon will be fighting for a chance as well, but Romelu Lukaku is set to go out on loan. There is still work to do up front.

Chelsea chief executive Ron Gourlay has insisted that Chelsea could still dip into their resources to bring another attacking player in: one of either Brazilian striker Hulk or Wigan forward Victor Moses is the most likely arrival. The worrying signs for the rest of the Premier League, and perhaps those at UEFA who were hoping that FFP might have dissuaded clubs from further extravagance, is that they don't look done yet.

Having spent in excess of £300 million in two years at the start of his time in London to bring unprecedented success to the club, Abramovich looks ready to ensure that his legacy remains in place when his wings are clipped. With a squad that can now compete across all competitions, finally claiming the Champions League has stoked the Blues' fire for success. Their desire to reclaim their place at the top of the English game will be a daunting prospect for the rest of the league.

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