If it is was possible for the 2014-15 English Premier League title to be given before the first ball was kicked, it will go to Chelsea. And comfortably too. The Blues have never been this strong in years—perhaps, ever. They now boast of the best team in Europe, at least on paper.
Among their ranks are some of the best, most experienced and most decorated footballers in the world. Filing out for Jose Mourinho's team this season will be three World Cup winners and twelve UEFA Champions League finalists. The Special One himself is a two-time UEFA Champions League winner and he's won domestic league titles in Portugal, Spain, Italy and, most important, England, twice.
Not yet convinced? In comes the Abramovich factor. The Russian oligarch looks more willing than ever to throw in the clash and return the Londoners to the top of the money-splashing league where they once were before being given some knocks by Manchester City and Paris Saint Germain. Perhaps, both Mourinho and Abramovich have come to the realization that with money all things are possible in today's football. When in doubt, ask the likes of Manchester City, PSG and Real Madrid.
With some facts to back it up, I reiterate that no club in England can match the Blues on paper. From goalkeeping to attack, the squad looks like an expensively assembled army.
Between the sticks next season will (possibly) be two of the most sought-after goalkeepers in the world. In Thibaut Courtois is the best young goalkeeper in the world and in Petr Cech Chelsea have the most consistent world-class goalkeeper of the last 10 years. It will be interesting to know who the Special One will settle for as his first choice goalkeeper, considering the young Belgian's proven potentials and the veteran Czech's decorated past, though the latter has been reportedly told to look for another club.
Petr Cech, last season's PFA goalkeeper of the year, is just a few games away from making English Premiership history. If he's retained by the club and able to keep 10 clean sheets this season, he'll break David James' all-time record of 170 EPL clean sheets and cement his place as the Premier League’s best ever goalkeeper. Cech's record is even more impressive than James'. While it took the ex-Liverpool goalie 572 games to achieve that feat, Cech will need just about 350. Jose Mourinho would have been tempted to pick him over Courtois with an eye on that record. But that in itself would not have been an easy decision to make.
The 22-year-old Courtois had a fairy tale 2013-14 season in which conceded just 24 goals in La Liga, was named its best goalkeeper, won the league with underdogs Atletico Madrid, got to the UEFA Champions League final with them and was named the competition's best goalkeeper. Whatever decision Jose Mourinho makes at the end of the day, he will be choosing between the Premier League's best and La Liga's undoubted number one as the stats below show.
Petr Cech in the 2013-14 EPL season:
3060 minutes played
1.53 saves rate
16 clean sheets (joint highest)
0.47 clean sheets rate
Premier League golden glove (shared with Wojciech Szczesny)
PFA goalkeeper of the year
Thibaut Courtois in the 2013-14 La Liga season:
3330 minutes played
1.62 saves rate
20 clean sheets (highest)
0.54 clean sheets rate
Ricardo Zamora Award for best goalkeeper
Bonus: UEFA Champions League best goalkeeper (shared with Manuel Neuer)
Further afield is what looks like the most formidable defence Mourinho and Chelsea have had in years. The quartet of Gary Cahill, John Terry, Branislav Ivanovic and Cesar Azpilicueta formed the stingiest backfour in the EPL last season, conceding a meager 27 goals and keeping 18 clean sheets in 38 games. Things can only get rockier for opposition attackers this season, though, as Atletico Madrid's Felipe Luis has since been brought in to replace the outgoing Ashley Cole who was only used sparingly last season. Luis himself was part of the impregnable league title-winning los Rojiblancos side that conceded an even fewer 26 goals in last season's Spanish La Liga. In addition to that, Chelsea have already gotten rid of the other "Luiz" and they no longer have to worry about his fickle form and infamous costly slip-ups.
With the arrival of Luis, a natural left-back, the excellent Cesar Azpilicueta will now be drafted back to his preferred right-back position where he has a chance to impress again. This leaves Mourinho, again, with the question of what to do with the loyal Branislav Ivanovic who carried out his duties with aplomb from that position last season. But the Azpilicueta-Ivanovic headache is one that every top manager dreams of. Such is the strength and depth of Mourinho's squad that the powerful Serbian may have to settle for a place on the bench and deputize for Azpilicueta and the two first-choice centre-halves. Who Mourinho prefers between the two is anyone's guess.
At the heart of the defence, there is little doubt that the Special One will stick with the all-English pairing of Gary Cahill and Captain John Terry. Young bloods Nathan Ake and Kurt Zouma look certain to be retained as understudies and possibly take over in the future. An Azpilicueta/Ivanovic-Cahill-Terry-Luis partnership is actually more intimidating that it looks on your screen now.
In the midfield lies the greatest pool of talent. There are a total of 12 midfielders in the Chelsea set-up and for the first time in 14 years, Frank Lampard is not one of them. He has since pulled on a Manchester City shirt. In his place comes Cesc Fabregas. What the legendary Englishman lacked in dynamism in his latter days, the 2010 World Cup winner has in abundance. He brings to Chelsea a whole new level of vigour and creativity that was so often lacking last term. It is difficult to argue against him being the engine room of the entire squad this season.
Nemanja Matic and Willian did well for themselves last season, while Oscar and Ramires are expected to improve upon their performance in the second half of last season. World Cup winner Andre Schurrle will definitely be given a bigger role by Mourinho. However, Eden Hazard remains the star attraction and fulcrum of the Blues. The Belgian, 23, was named the 2013-14 PFA Young Player of the Year and was also included in the EPL team of the year, giving credence to Jose Mourinho's claim that he's the best young player in the world. This season, more is even expected of him.
Chelsea made a statement signing by snapping up the Diego Costa from Atletico Madrid even before the previous season was brought to an end. The Brazilian-born Spanish international is every bit the archetypal Mourinho hitman. He's close to his peak, strong on his feet, powerful with the ball, sharp, instinctive, skilful and knows how to be in the right place at the right time. He reminds the Special One of Didier Drogba, who, incidentally, is back at his old stomping ground, Stamford Bridge. This time around it's not as an opponent in the colours of Galatasaray, but as a true blue. The 36-year-old icon was brought in to fulfil his muted dreams of retiring at Chelsea and transition into a managerial role.
There is no doubt about who Mourinho's first choice striker will be: Costa. He has already gotten off on the right foot, netting four goals in Chelsea's preseason campaign, including one described as a "wonder goal" by UK newspaper, the Independent, against Fenerbahçe. He will be deputized by both Didier Drogba and Fernando Torres.
All in all, anything short of the league title will be a disappointment for Chelsea and Mourinho. Having constantly branded his side as "little horses" throughout last season because of the underperforming trio of Demba Ba, Fernando Torres and Samuel Eto'o, the Special One has finally ran out of excuses now that the squad has been reinforced in every department with Roman Abramovich's petrodollars. Predictably, his language has changed, recently telling reporters at a press conference that he now has the squad to dominate the Premier League for a decade.
His words: "We have the squad that we want to have. It is a squad for tomorrow, for next season and also a squad with big possibilities for the next five or ten years with so many young people. The only thing I can say is that I like very much the squad." He knows more than everyone else that surviving a trophyless season under the impatient Russian oligarch is a miracle, but surviving two will mean that the world is coming to an end.
Chinedu George Nnawetanma is a social commentator and football lover.
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