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Aug 9, 2010

Summer Blues look to get back on track

It was not a successful summer for Chelsea's key stars. Michael Essien, John Obi Mikel, Jose Bosingwa and Didier Drogba saw their World Cups ruined by injury. Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole and John Terry faced the wrath of a nation after England's abject performance, with the deposed captain having generated additional scorn through his now infamous press conference. For Florent Malouda and particularly Nicolas Anelka, it was even worse, with France's campaign degenerating into outright sedition.

Last season finished on a glorious high for Chelsea and Carlo Ancelotti, though, and, as Terry discovered earlier in the year amid the controversy over his alleged relationship with Wayne Bridge's former partner, Stamford Bridge will provide a welcome sanctuary.

It's a good time to be a Blue. For the first time since 2006, Chelsea are the champions, and they ended their Premier League campaign in such imperious style - culminating in a 8-0 win over Wigan - that any doubts over the quality of Ancelotti's men were conclusively dispelled. The following week, they retained the FA Cup, beating Portsmouth 1-0 to become Double winners for the first time in their history.

The 2010-11 campaign has begun on something of a sour note with a 3-1 defeat to Manchester United in the Community Shield, but it will not be of huge concern: the teams concerned largely view the match as a glorified pre-season friendly, and a vast number of players are still far from fully fit after their World Cup excursions. Few neutral observers would dispute Chelsea's status as the top team in English football at this stage.

Nonetheless, it is worth remembering that a series of poor results between December and March nearly derailed Chelsea's title bid last season and saw the club exit the Champions League during the first knockout round. That it was to the eventual winners, Jose Mourinho's Inter, provides ample mitigation, but owner Roman Abramovich was said to have berated his players for their meek showing at Stamford Bridge in the second leg.

Chelsea were severely hindered against Inter by the loss of their first-choice full backs, Bosingwa and Cole, to injury. In their absence, Malouda was forced back into defence in the first leg and, while the return of Yuri Zhirkov was a boost for the return, the lack of attacking width across the two games effectively stripped the Blues of a plan B. It is little wonder that Chelsea have been so swift to dismiss talk Cole could join Real Madrid.

Ancelotti has indicated that the transfer plan for the new season is to replace those players who have departed. Joe Cole, Michael Ballack and Juliano Belletti were released at the end of their contracts, and they are set to be replaced respectively by Yossi Benayoun, Ramires and an as yet unknown right back.

Benayoun is perhaps more comfortable out wide than Cole, which will be of benefit, and Ancelotti feels he will be better able to carry out his gameplan. "Joe Cole is quicker than Benayoun but Yossi is better tactically," he said last week. "He understands what I tell him. Yossi is a very intelligent player. He knows everything about the game. Cole and Benayoun are different players and everyone has their own opinion, but we are happy to have Yossi here at Chelsea."

Benfica star Ramires, a Brazil international, is not a like-for-like replacement for Ballack but, given Lampard's continued club form in the attacking role, that is to be considered a plus point. A hard-running player capable of performing in a creative role, Ramires has the ability to dribble through defences, as he showed in supplying Robinho's goal against Chile at the World Cup. It seems he has been targeted as a defensive midfielder, though, and international team-mate Kaka has said he will eventually "be placed in the same bracket as Claude Makelele, Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira". The injuries that kept Essien out for the majority of last season illustrated the need for more cover at the base of midfield so, with Belletti also having departed, Ramires seems an ideal signing.

The recruitment of an attacking right back will be important, too. Bosingwa, having been out of action since October, is unlikely to recover his best form for some time and, although Branislav Ivanovic is a high-quality right back, he cannot attack down the flanks in the same manner and, in the event of injuries and suspension, may be required in the centre.

Deco finally sealed his return to Brazil at the weekend, but whether or not Chelsea will seek to replace him remains to be seen. Recent links with Mesut Ozil seem to suggest they may be in the market, but it seems far from certain that a new playmaker will arrive. A new goalkeeper also seems to be on the agenda in response to unconvincing recent showings from Hilario and Ross Turnbull.

Regardless of new arrivals, though, Ancelotti has retained an experienced, highly talented squad, and the fact that Essien is fully fit again is a huge boost. To supplement the existing players, Ancelotti has also has vowed to finally give the club's youth players their chance. Director of sport Frank Arnesen, recruited from Tottenham in 2005, has received criticism for his failure to supply the first-team with top-class young talent, but the club's managers must also share the responsibility for failing to show real faith in the academy products.

Miroslav Stoch, who won the Eredivisie title while on loan at FC Twente before starring in the World Cup for Slovakia, was surprisingly offloaded to Fenerbahce in a €5.5 million deal earlier in the summer, but it appears Gael Kakuta is Arnesen's great hope. Kakuta, 19, has so far generated more headlines for the transfer ban - later repealed - imposed on Chelsea as a result of his 2007 move from Lens, but Ancelotti has described this tricky attacker as "the future of Chelsea". His sterling showings at the European Under-19 Championship for France this summer will only have reinforced that view.

Netherlands Under-21 defender Patrick van Aanholt earned rave reviews during a loan spell with Newcastle in the Championship last season, while compatriot Jeffrey Bruma recently received a call-up to Bert van Marwijk's senior squad despite the centre back being just 18 years old. Nemanja Matic and Daniel Sturridge, who joined from MFK Kosice and Manchester City respectively in 2009, will also hope to secure more regular first-team football this season.

The feeling, then, will be that there is significant cause for optimism about the coming campaign despite previously spendthrift owner Roman Abramovich having become increasingly thrifty in recent times. It appears that, despite significant funds having been made available for the likes of Fernando Torres or Kaka, Ancelotti will have similar options to those that brought domestic but not European success in 2010.

The long wait for a Champions League title goes on but, even as the likes of Lampard and Drogba edge ever closer to the end of their careers, a fully-fit Chelsea squad should be able to stand toe-to-toe with even the very best of the continent.

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