TEN things we have learnt from Chelsea this season

A tale of two Cole’s  – Ashley Cole and Joe Cole have had wildly differing fortunes both on and off the pitch this season, but both end it as double winners and both could potentially take their seats on the plane to South Africa, with their being lingering doubts over Joe’s selection if not Ashley’s. Ashley Cole has had his finest season in a Chelsea shirt this campaign and solidified his place fractionally ahead of Patrice Evra as the best left back in the world. His indiscretions off the pitch, whereby he proceeded to cheat again on national treasure (seriously, when did this happen?) Cheryl Cole hasn’t exactly endeared him to the public. But after breaking his foot in February, and with the less than enviable prospects such as Leighton Baines, Stephen Warnock and even Paul Konchesky all lined up at the door, the nation drew a collective sigh of relief when he returned to action in a ‘come back Ashley, all is forgiven’ manner last month. Upon his return he picked right up where he left off with some excellent displays. He has always been solid at Chelsea defensively but he seemed to lose the attacking verve he displayed in his younger years at rivals Arsenal. Well that has been well and truly rediscovered this season and after scoring 4 league goals, one of them probably the goal of the season against Sunderland, and assisting numerous moves with his forward forays down the left hand flank. He looks like he’s finally enjoying his football again and he’ll be a major plus to have back fully fit at the World Cup. Contrast this with Joe Cole, a man with such a settled family life off the pitch, on the pitch though, this season has been a struggle for him. After knee surgery over the summer, Joe Cole has struggled to force his way back into both Carlo Ancelotti and Fabio Capello’s plans for club and country. The quality remains though and a deft flick in the ultimately decisive 2-0 victory over Man Utd is proof of this. The issue over whether he’ll get a new contract after his current one expires this summer has been a bone of contention though, and a point of personal frustration for Cole himself. Club sources have publicly blamed Cole’s excessive wage demands, which the player denies. The manager has seemed reluctant to use him at times and he has been frozen out towards the end of the season by the form of Soloman Kalou. His form has been indifferent since his return, yet Ancelotti has maintained his willingness to keep him and with the club set to open negotiation talks with its out of contract players fairly soonish, after a postponement to focus on the league campaign, Cole could end the season under happier circumstances with a new deal and a place at the World Cup. But at the moment things remain undecidedly up in the air for the talented winger.

Chelsea’s real Captain – Frank Lampard’s season has grown from consistent mediocrity to one of exceptional proportions. He has banged in 22 league goals, a total that includes 8 penalties and he has 17 assists to his name, the most in the league. Across all competitions he has 27 goals and 20 assists and he remains a calm, efficient and crucial presence in the Chelsea midfield appearing in all but 2 of Chelsea’s league games. Even by his high standards this has been a season to remember and he recently won the goal of the season award on Match of the Day with an expertly diverted flick from a long cross field ball past Asmir Begovic in the Stoke goal in their 7-0 drubbing just a few weeks ago. John Terry started the season off as England Captain and in excellent form, but what has changed this is obviously the much publicised affair. It may seem obvious to draw attention to it, but Terry’s from did suffer a bit afterwards and his lack of pace has been exposed too at times, most notably against Spurs where he was dismissed for two rash challenges and could even be considered fortunate to have stayed on the pitch that long. The arrogant and ignorant manner of his actions in a public demonstration in his very next league game after being rightfully stripped of the England captaincy, whereby he wore his armband even without his shirt on in the post-match interview, was as cringe worthy as it was ill-advisable, with messrs Shearer and Hansen incorrectly stating in the studio that his admittedly excellent performance was a sign of mental strength. He and they missed the point entirely, it’s not that people don’t rate him as a player, it’s just that every other fan other in the entire country other than Chelsea fans didn’t want him as England Captain and the thought of him lifting the World Cup sent shivers down people’s spines, mine included, and whilst we could wax lyrical about his, shall we say, unsavoury character, he is without a doubt still a very good centre back and will still go to the World Cup as first choice. Terry is supposed to be the all-action English lion heart, our inspirational leader, and whilst he talks a good game, perhaps it’s time he practised what he preaches, as he’s been at times an embarrassment to his club and he presented manager Carlo Ancelotti with a potentially destabilising factor in his team’s title bid, alongside some unwanted press attention. Lampard though, quietly goes about his business on the pitch and leads by example. Chelsea’s celebrations may have been a tad more fervent and a bit more palatable for the neutral had it been Lampard and not Terry who lifted both the league title and the FA Cup within the last week.

A case for the defence – Chelsea’s rearguard has certainly been more solid in the past and they will have better seasons than this performance wise, but you can’t really complain at 18 clean sheets and only 32 goals conceded over the course of a league campaign. Petr Cech still looks shaky under the high ball and has some batty moments this campaign, yet he remains head and shoulders above his immediate competition and he made a crucial penalty save with the scores still level in the FA Cup final to signal some better form towards the back end of the season. As I mentioned above, Terry hasn’t been in the best from the last few months, with his form ranging from the excellent to the shoddy, but prior to the scandal he was just excellent. Alex remains a steady option at the back in Carvalho’s absence. Cole has had his finest season in a Chelsea shirt and the real story of the season’s defence has been the continually excellent form of Branislav Ivanovic who capped it all off with a place in the PFA Team of the Year. A special mention must also go to Yuri Zhirkov who replaced Cole more than ably in the three month spell the England man spent on the sidelines.

FA Cup success continues – Chelsea’s great record in the FA Cup continues with victory over Pompey. The club have now won 3 out of the last 4 FA Cups, quite some feat for any side. In this year’s tournament they looked worthy winners, even if they didn’t have the hardest of runs to the final and they scored 15 goals in the competition conceding just one goal en route. They knocked out the likes of Watford, Cardiff, Stoke and Aston Villa before battering Pompey in the final. Chelsea struck the woodwork five times just in the first half and despite a spirited display from severe underdogs Pompey, they were fortunate to get away with just a 1-0 defeat after falling behind to an expertly taken free-kick from Didier Drogba. The Carling Cup went less according to plan though, as they were defeated on penalties in the quarter-final stage away at Blackburn after a 3-3 draw, yet that result does carry less credence however as the side did decide to rest Lampard, Terry, Anelka and Ashley Cole. Chelsea are now unquestionably the most formidable cup team in the land based on recent evidence.

Return of the Special One – The stage was set, would Jose gain revenge over his former paymasters or would Chairman Roman Abramovich’s decision to get rid of the Portuguese manager be justified? Well sadly for Chelsea fans it turned out to be the latter. After sailing through the group stages scoring 11 goals and conceding just three in the process, they emerged with ease from a group which included the likes of Atletico Madrid, Apoel Nicosia and FC Porto with four wins and two draws from their six fixtures. The draw was unkind to the club though, with Ancelotti’s team drawing Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan side, the leaders of Serie A. The first leg though was away from home which put the odds marginally in their favour, especially if they could get that crucial an away goal. The first leg didn’t get off to the best start though after they fell behind to a Diego Milito goal. Kalou pulled one back with an important equaliser, but Cambiasso popped up to put the hosts ahead again leaving the tie both evenly and intriguingly balanced. The Drogba v Lucio & Samuel duel continued in the second leg, and despite huffing and puffing all game, Chelsea were short of ideas and were eventually caught on the break with Samuel Eto’o putting the hosts to the sword with a fine finish and Chelsea exited at only the second hurdle. It increased the pressure on manager Ancelotti tenfold, with the theory always being that the thing that Chairman Roman Abramovich covets above all others in football is success for his club in Europe and after the new manager failed to deliver, the pressure inevitably increased. Chelsea remain a potent force at times in Europe but ultimately the blot against their record will have to be the fact that they haven’t won the Champions League yet, despite being a significant force in the latter rounds for a significant amount of time already. Ancelotti was brought in to rectify this and secure the trophy having previously won it twice with his former club Milan, but this year will have to go down as a missed opportunity.

Goals, Goals, Goals – Last season Chelsea scored just 68 league goals, this term though they’ve smashed all Premiership records by banging in 103 goals, an increase in 35 goals, which is an astounding total for any side. Man Utd have improved upon their own total in the absence of the talents of Ronaldo and Tevez by 18 goals. It’s not just the amount of goals that’s been pleasing though, it’s been the number of people that have contributed. Drogba, despite his embarrassing little hissy fit against Wigan, bagged 29 league goals, Lampard contributed an excellent 22, Malouda and Anelka chipped in with 12 and 11 respectively. Ballack, Kalou and Ashley Cole even added another 14 between them. Man Utd’s downfall has been their over-reliance on Rooney at times this season, whereas Chelsea have had such an able support cast to Drogba that you could never level the ‘one man team’ criticism at them. They also managed to score 7 goals or more on four separate occasions after beating Sunderland 7-2 at home, Villa 7-1, Stoke 7-0 and Wigan 8-0 in the final game of the season to romp home to the title in style. The number of occasions that they’ve scored four goals or more in a game is also worth a mention, as they achieved this feat on 9 separate occasions in all competitions discounting the drubbings listed above. They’ve been potent, devastating and bloody brilliant at times it has to be said.

Consistency killed the cat – Nope, it wasn’t curiosity that proved your favourite feline’s downfall but consistency, and as they say, the league table doesn’t lie, so with Chelsea coming narrowly out on top, they’ve obviously been the most consistent side. Title rivals Man Utd have ranged from the sublime to the dull, whereas Chelsea, despite Ancelotti struggling to stamp his own mark on the side until at least the turn of the year have been consistently good. In the final few months of the season however, Chelsea began to look more fluid and composed going forward than they have done for at least two or three seasons and the benefits of this showed as they stepped their game up a gear or two. Their home form was integral to their title success though and they picked up 52 points from a possible 57. Away from home though, Ancelotti will want to address the five league defeat they suffered and although they picked up a respectable total of 34 points from 57 on their travels, it’s not an exceptional total when you compare it to seasons gone by and there’s certainly room for improvement there. It has to be said that the league has increased in competitiveness this season, but I’d say that this principle only really applies to the top 8 or 9 teams in the league. The quality has definitely evened out to a degree compared to seasons gone by, but below that sides have become easier than ever to beat, and there could be a real division in terms of quality in the league from the top half of the table compared to the bottom half next season. The art of defending for most teams, such as your Wigan’s or your Burnley’s have just served to highlight that the standard has rapidly decreased in the bottom half of the division. This Chelsea side, not to sully their achievements this season too much, are probably one of the worst sides to have ever have won the Premiership title. Victory has not been achieved by being overly superior and dominant compared to everyone else, but by being a consistent force to be reckoned with. This in itself is a hard characteristic to master and this Chelsea side most definitely definitely have mastered it, but whether they’ll go down as one of the Premiership’s greatest teams, despite the large number of goals they have scored, I’m not so sure, and I don’t think they’re a patch on the Chelsea title winning sides of 2005 or 2006.

Big Games Team – With the quality evening out at the top half of the Premiership and most sides in the top six taking regular points off sides below them, pinching points off of your nearest rivals has become more important than ever, and in this respect Chelsea have excelled. They achieved a double over Man Utd which proved to be decisive, they beat Arsenal comprehensively twice both home and away with Didier Drogba heavily involved in both victories, Liverpool were defeated twice and Villa and Spurs were too once each and they even collected four points from a tough Birmingham side. Only against Everton and Man City did they seem to struggle, with the team only contriving to take just the one point out of the four fixtures. Chelsea took a maximum of 18 points from their traditional top four rivals, something that’s normally considered the mark of champions and Chelsea can rightly be considered a big game team, particularly at their home Stamford Bridge.

Ancelotti steps out of Mourinho’s shadow – Since the self- proclaimed ‘Special One ‘departed Stamford Bridge for pastures new, a shadow has been cast upon the position of manager. It’s become a poisoned chalice to those that inherited it. Despite Guus Hiddink giving it a decent effort whist interim manager, Avram Grant coming only a spot kick away from fulfilling Chairman Abramovich’s dreams and Scolari with failing to deliver, no manager has been able to stamp their own image on the club with the squad largely staying the same since the Portuguese manager’s departure. Credit must fully go to Ancelotti then for working with a squad not of his own choice and to the victor go the spoils. He’ll be given money to spend this summer but the shadow that Mourinho cast over Stamford Bridge has been lifted by the wily Italian, who has won the title with a degree of humility and grace. There have been no controversies and inflammatory remarks from Ancelotti either in victory or defeat and he could go some way to repairing the club’s image as a brash and arrogant force that figures such as Peter Kenyon went some way to creating. He’s coped with the scandals well, applied a more attacking spirit to the team, and generally gone about his business in an understated way. Many people wrote off Chelsea before the season began, stating that the ageing squad was past its peak and in need of major surgery to be able to challenge once more, but Ancelotti’s management has been excellent throughout. Many will point to Roy Hodgson as manager of the year for his exploits in Europe and whilst they may present a strong case, personally at least, I’d find it hard to look past Carlo Ancelotti for achieving a double in his first season, something not even Mourinho could manage and that has never been done before in the club’s entire history. This was all achieved with a squad not of his own making, after barely spending a penny and all whilst in his first season in a new country and a new league. Superb.

Summer spending – Didier Drogba argued earlier on in the campaign that the continuity and familiarity that the squad had with one another was a massive help. Well that may go down as one of the reasons for this season’s triumphs, but in the summer the club is going to have to seriously invest. Ancelotti’s used to working with an ageing side such as he did in his time as Milan manager, but the fact of the matter is that with the pace of the Premiership, you won’t be able to get away with that forever. Key players such as Lampard, Drogba, Terry, Cech and Anelka are all the wrong side of 30 and although the next batch coming through such as Sturridge, Stoch, Borini and Kakuta all look promising, the manager will be looking to add some fresher and more established faces in the close season. Several key players are also out of contract with Michael Ballack, Joe Cole, Deco and Paulo Ferriera all looking like possible departures. The midfield needs looking at too, as neither Ballack, Mikel nor Deco are of sufficient enough quality to achieve anything of note in Europe. The return of Michael Essien will be like adding a new signing to the side and Lampard has proved to be a superhuman influence at times, but it’s clear that reinforcements are needed to continue what they have started. The defence looks in good condition, but they may wish to bring in a younger face to replace the unsettled Carvalho. Down the wings Malouda has had a barnstorming last few months to the season and Anelka has been consistent if not as eye-catching as last term, but a new winger would be an added bonus. At 32 years of age, striker Didier Drogba seems to be getting better and stronger the older he gets, but another striker in the mould of Sergio Aguero, a player who has been making noises of interest himself, would be an excellent addition. Come on Roman, it’s time to dip into your pockets, enough of this self-efficient rubbish.

Arbitrary marks out of ten –  9/10 – A double was never on the cards at the beginning of the season with the current squad available and with a new manager in tow, but this Chelsea side have shown a great degree of mental resilience to be able to deal with the off-field issues that could have destabilised lesser teams. This could be the beginning of a dominant era for Chelsea but they’ll need the reinvestment to match their ambition otherwise it could all come to nothing more than a one season wonder. Europe remains a thorny issue that needs addressing, with the current side found wanting, but based off of this season’s evidence, and his success in the competition as a whole, Carlo Ancelotti looks more than up to the job.

 


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