Take a trip to Stamford Bridge on a Saturday this season and there is one thing you will be guaranteed; goals. Over the past year Chelsea have gained a reputation as one of the most exciting outfits in the Premier League, with the west London side becoming known for their free-scoring attitude and attacking brand of football. Carlo Ancelotti’s arrival in the capital has sparked a transformation in the blues’ philosophy. The Italian’s side notched up a record 103 Premier League goals in an opening campaign that would eventually result in a prestigious league and cup double. Chelsea proved to be the master of mediocre opposition as time and time again sides visiting the Bridge were put to the sword. Stoke, Sunderland and Aston Villa were all hit for seven, whilst Wigan suffered the indignity of conceding eight in an emphatic final day victory.
After a rigorous summer and a terrible pre-season you would be forgiven for thinking that Ancelotti’s men would still being dusting themselves off come opening day, yet the Champions picked up where they had left off with a 6-0 thumping of West Brom. The Chelsea attack were once again electric. Didier Drogba and Florent Malouda hit the ground running whilst the ever present Frank Lampard continued to pull the strings in the centre of midfield. The Ivorian striker, winner of last season’s golden boot, began this season as he ended the last, with a hat-trick. However, it is his strike partner who is causing confusion amongst the Stamford Bridge faithful.
Nicolas Anelka is arguably facing one of the biggest seasons of his career. The controversial journeyman insists he has found a place to call home at Stamford Bridge yet in the last 12 months he has far from justified his position in one of the best sides in the world. A contribution of just 11 of his side’s 103 goals last season meant that he was not only overshadowed by Drogba, but also surpassed by his fellow Frenchman Florent Malouda. Admittedly, the former Bolton striker spent much of the season tailoring to Drogba’s needs, having often been forced out onto the wing to accommodate for the African’s imposing figure and whilst this does go some way to explaining the decline in Anelka’s goal tally, there was a still a noticeable change in the Frenchman.
The season before last, Anelka emerged as the league’s Golden Boot winner, overcoming Cristiano Ronaldo on the final day of the season despite Chelsea slumping to a disappointing third place in the table. He appeared to be settling in at Stamford Bridge, showing the fans the eye for goal that convinced Roman Abramovich to splash £15 million on the striker, however, while many of his team mates were experiencing some of the finest form of their lives, Anelka failed to set the world alight last season.
That is not to say that the Frenchman has lost his touch by any means. Saturday’s performance against Wigan was largely impressive as Anelka bagged a brace with a close range header and a classic striker’s finish, yet with all due respect to the Latics, this was Wigan and strikers far worse than Nicolas will find the net against the Lancashire club this year (Marlon Harewood’s opening day brace springs to mind). It is not necessarily the games against the lesser opposition that concerns me with Anelka but the crucial, high pressure matches against the best sides in the league and Europe, for that matter.
The Frenchman has been noted for his somewhat unorthodox career and it wouldn’t be unfair to suggest that he has not featured for a title challenging club since his infamous spell at Real Madrid at the turn of the century. During his time at Manchester City, Fenerbahce and Bolton, the striker was a talisman and appeared to thrive in big-game situations, yet this is one of the areas that appears to have eluded him at Chelsea. As a Blues’ fan myself, I often found myself frustrated with the striker in the big matches last season as he struggled to impose himself on the game and regularly found himself drifting out of the action. This point was highlighted in one of Chelsea’s most impressive performances of the last season as Ancelotti masterminded a title-winning victory at Old Trafford. The Italian was without a fully fit Didier Drogba and instead opted for Anelka to spearhead the attack and whilst the Blues’ produced a composed, professional performance, Anelka struggled to influence the game and it was once again left to the Ivorian to steal the headlines. There was also a great sense of déjà vu when the two sides met for the pre-season curtain raiser, the Community Shield, with Drogba again less than 100% and Anelka once again failing to impress against tougher opposition.
There can be no doubting Anelka’s ability, you do not become one of the most expensive players in the game by being average and wherever the Frenchman has been in his career he has always scored goals. However, the striker will turn 32 this year and whilst his compatriot Drogba is only improving with age, Anelka will need to prove his time at the top level is not quite over yet. Constant links to some of world football’s brightest young strikers will do little to assist the Frenchman yet Anelka needs to concentrate on his own game and prove the naysayers wrong, because if anyone at Stamford Bridge needs a big season this year, it is him.