Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Thoughts on Chelsea's Pre-Season Tour

I had the opportunity to see Chelsea play AC Milan in Miami, Florida on Saturday night.  Although the crowd was generously announced as 57,000-plus, to my eyes it looked about 10,000 lighter than that total.  One takeaway from the attendance is that they count crowds in Miami the same way they count voters in Cook County, Illinois: early and often.

Chelsea versus AC Milan in Miami
The largely blue-clad attendedees were in good spirit, though, and looked to see an entertaining game between the Blues and the rossoneri -- the latter team shorn of three of its biggest names, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic moving to Paris, Robinho spending time on the trainer's table, and Alexandre Pato at the Olympics.  Chelsea's starting lineup contained many familiar names, including Lampard, Terry, Cole, and Cech, playing alongside a new signing, but one which should be familiar to any student of the game -- Eden Hazard.

Although Milan's slim 1-0 victory was not the pre-season shootout most fans were hoping to see,  the quality of the football was fairly high, and the game hotted up a bit in the second half.  Herewith some thoughts on watching the Blues:
o Did Fernando Torres have the strangest season ever last year?  The guy couldn't buy a goal for most of the season, but ends up with the FA Cup, Champions League, and European Championship medals all hanging around his neck.  Oh yeah, and he won the Golden Boot in the Euros, as well....  All that and more still doesn't mean Nando's a guaranteed starter for a Chelsea team shorn of Didier Drogba, and Romelu Lukaku has seen a bunch of playing time this pre-season.  In looking back, Torres can be forgiven for thinking he spent the season as an extra in the Grateful Dead's Truckin' video: What a Long, Strange Trip it's Been....

o Eden Hazard showcased some beautiful ball skills on Saturday night, and looked very much the real deal.  Weaving his way in and out of the Milan defense, Hazard left a string of bamboozled defenders in his wake, and he will be a very dangerous man to mark in the Premier League.  His relatively slight frame brings to mind a question, though: how will he stand up to the rigors of the long and grueling English season....?  And will he be able to do that again on a cold February night in Stoke?

o Chelsea look to have an extremely strong midfield coming into the season opener -- Lampard, Hazard, Meireles, Malouda, Mikel, etc., but appear to be lacking up front.  Time and again the Blues worked the ball toward the 18 yard box but failed to find a target man in front of goal, where the attack inevitably broke down.  Didier Drogba was born to play that role, but who will replace him?  Chelsea fans had better hope that a) they sign someone else, or b) the aforementioned Torres gets his confidence back.

o Petr Cech looks back to his best.  Although the big man had a nearly costly slip and fall in the game's second half, he seems to have moved past the gaffes that plagued him for the start of last season.  When he's on, he's one of the best in the game.

o Newboy Marko Marin will give Chelsea more width when they have the ball, a problem they struggled with for all of last season, in which their attack appeared much too narrow.  The £7 million Werder Bremen man looked good in his time on the pitch Saturday, and will strengthen an already strong Chelsea midfield, especially in tandem with Ashley Cole on the left-hand side.

o So where does all this leave Chelsea?  They'll be better than last season for certain, and the Champions League medal seems to have rekindled Roman Abramovich's passion for the game and his team.   Chelsea has solved some flaws and added some firepower to be sure, but the lack of a purebred striker up front to complement Torres may be enough to stop them from re-claiming the crown.

This is farlieonfootie for August 1.


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