Another new broom but same old squad
Chelsea have been here before. The appointment of an internationally recognised and much decorated foreign coach and the promise of flowing football. The new arrival has displayed a jokey personality in press conferences; for Chelsea fans this might be deja vu all over again. For Luiz Felipe Scolari read Carlo Ancelotti?
The latest man to step into one of the hottest of seats in European football is blessed with a pedigree of two Champions League titles, the crown that Roman Abramovich most covets for his club. Then again, Scolari had won the World Cup.
Will Ancelotti be granted time? Scolari barely lasted the winter before Guus Hiddink came to the rescue and made Ancelotti's new job that little bit harder. Under the Dutchman, Chelsea suddenly began to look like their old selves, their Mourinho selves. The former "Special One" casts a shadow over the Italian's tenure in London. He and Ancelotti did not get on during their time coaching respective Milan giants and a comparison with the Portuguese former incumbent may yet be uncomfortable for the former AC Milan coach.
Unlike Mourinho, Ancelotti is yet to be granted untold riches to deliver success at Stamford Bridge. So far he has only been able to add Yuri Zhirkov from CSKA Moscow, Daniel Sturridge from Manchester City and Middlesbrough goalkeeper Ross Turnbull. The fee for the Russian was nominally £20m but Abramovich's close links with the selling club mean that the actual money changing hands may be less than that sum. Ancelotti has chased the services of Andrea Pirlo, his playmaker at San Siro, but AC Milan have rebuffed an offer of £6.7m plus unwanted striker Claudio Pizarro.
Ancelotti has spoken of his desire to play with a midfield diamond, with attacking full-backs manning the flanks; shades of Scolari again. The Brazilian's team delighted with their early season form in 2008-09 before their gameplan faltered as winter took hold. Whispers about a lack of conditioning among the team began to abound, as confirmed by some under-par Champions League appearances, capitulations at the hands of Manchester United and Liverpool plus an insomnia-curing 0-0 home draw with struggling Hull that was Scolari's last match in charge. Abramovich, previously accused of losing interest in the club, then removed the former World Cup winner and called in Hiddink from the Russian national team, where he had been bankrolling the Dutchman's employment.
That Hiddink did not stay was a disappointment to many Chelsea fans yet most would respect him keeping to his word and returning to clear up the unfinished business of World Cup qualification. Yet that "will he, won't he?" saga has dimmed in the memory following John Terry's dalliance with a megabucks move to Manchester City.
The Terry saga took nearly a month to be resolved. Fans faced a long wait for the club captain to declare that "leaving Chelsea was never a possibility." Why it took so long to reveal that information is yet to be explained. For the first time, Terry may well have been viewed as a bankable asset by the club. To cash in their captain for the type of money that could have been used to augment what was described last year by Sir Alex Ferguson as an ageing squad may have been tempting. The onus was seemingly placed on Terry to decide the matter and he eventually made his announcement while on Chelsea's tour of the USA.
A similar saga surrounded Frank Lampard last season, while Didier Drogba, without the fuss and nonsense of last summer, has signed an extension to his contract. In retaining those three, Ancelotti will have the spine of the team that played under Mourinho, Avram Grant, Scolari and Hiddink. While Lampard had perhaps his best season of a tremendous Chelsea career and Terry eventually got to play his part, the overriding memories of Drogba's season will be his excommunication by Scolari, his return to form under Hiddink and then an explosion in the Champions League.
Disgracing himself after the shock of Champions League defeat by Barcelona followed a similar loss of control in the previous season's final and will cause him to be absent for the first four group games of 2009-10. The Ivorian may have partially redeemed himself with another Wembley goal in the FA Cup final yet his temperament remains in question. Meanwhile, his goal record in the Premier League was last season dwarfed by that of Nicolas Anelka, whose poaching qualities may remind Ancelotti of Pippo Inzaghi at San Siro.
It may yet be a straight choice between that pair and there is other competition for places. Florient Malouda was a different and far more effective player under Guus Hiddink yet his left-hand role may be threatened by the arrival Zhirkov. Where will Joe Cole fit in once his knee injury is cured? Salomon Kalou and Branislav Ivanovic were two players who had their moments under Hiddink, with the Serbian defender a one-time target for Ancelotti at Milan, yet both face a fight to be in the starting line-up.
In the midfield Michael Essien looks undroppable with versatility and athleticism adding legs to a bunch of over-30s if Mikel John Obi should be overlooked in favour of a deep-lying playmaker of the Pirlo or Deco type. Michael Ballack has extended his deal with Chelsea for another season but looks likely to have to fight to play. He and Lampard are still to gell and this is their fourth season together. Terry is famously the last graduate of a youth academy that director of football Frank Arnesen has felt moved to recently defend, so younger talent will have to be bought in. The arrivals of Sturridge - on a tribunal fee - and Turnbull as back-up to Cech reflect a need to still pay money for young talent.
Recent talk has centred around Abramovich opening the purse strings on a scale similar to the Mourinho years and on the face of it, Chelsea look in need of fresh blood. Yet Ancelotti, after eight years bossing the famed Milanello training ground which seems to have had a preserving effect on many an ageing star (David Beckham its most recent graduate), may be the man to return the fitness levels that looked low during the Scolari regime. Hiddink, believed to be still acting as a consultant for the club's oligarch owner, laid decent groundwork and, by winning the FA Cup, proved the strength of a group Ancelotti is now working with.
Of their rivals, Sir Alex Ferguson has expressed his belief that Chelsea pose the biggest threat to his Manchester United team. Last year, he was questioning their legs. Chelsea have a familiar look to this time last year yet that does not necessarily preclude a successful season. Their old guard still possess the strength to pose a problem to the other challengers.