Predicted position: First
Last season’s position: First
Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 13-8
The big question about Chelsea and the season ahead is whether other teams will force José Mourinho’s side to be better. The dominance of Mourinho’s men in last term’s Premier League was damning on all the pretenders whose faffing or bungling contributed to making Chelsea’s relatively seamless progress sometimes seem boring. It may transpire that the most damaging thing any so-called title rivals did to Chelsea last season was to infect the Stamford Bridge side with a complacency that could jeopardise the defence of their crown. But there is still plenty of time left this summer for Mourinho to prove the rabble did not even achieve that.
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“You are speaking with the manager of the best team in England – we don’t have frailties,” said Mourinho last week, but that was probably just him making light of the pre-season friendly defeat to New York Red Bulls rather than the airing of a genuine belief his squad is perfect. After all, Chelsea have been pursuing John Stones because they know time is one opponent John Terry cannot subdue forever and interest in Pedro and other forwards suggest Mourinho wants to broaden his team’s attacking repertoire and squad. Hopefully they will need to.
How worried Mourinho is about other clubs’ reinforcing may determine how vigorously he pursues his transfer targets: he surely knows who he wants and has his eyes on players who could solve problems in the way that Nemanja Matic, Cesc Fàbregas and Diego Costa have done since the Portuguese’s second coming at Stamford Bridge, but it may be he will accept waiting until January or next summer to sign his ideal recruit if he is unconvinced the Manchester clubs, Arsenal and Liverpool have made up sufficient ground this summer. And one advantage of being scheduled to meet Manchester City in the second match of the season is that if Mourinho misjudges the levels of that team’s improvement he may still be able to respond accordingly in the summer transfer window.
Standing still would be an obvious risk and one that you suspect Mourinho would be loth to run given that he would probably be boasting two titles from two Premier League campaigns since his return to England if Chelsea had not decided to muddle through with Fernando Torres while waiting for Costa in the 2013-14 season. What is more, even if merely replacing deputies – Asmir Begovic for Petr Cech, Radamel Falcao for Didier Drogba and, it seems, Baba Rahman for Filipe Luís – turned out to be enough to stay on top in England it would hardly restore Chelsea to elite status in the Champions League, where they were found badly wanting last season. Although their elimination by PSG was more to do with Mourinho’s residual negativity rather than personnel problems and that, too, is a fact Mourinho must face.
Chelsea do not, of course, need major surgery. Their goalkeeping options are excellent and their defence looks to be still the strongest in the Premier League, with the highly promising Kurt Zouma providing solid cover if the Terry-Gary Cahill axis starts creaking. Stones would offer more security on that front if signed. Branislav Ivanovic is the best right-back in the Premier League and César Azpilicueta can deputise for him well and Rahman, if he joins, should prove sturdier backup on the left.
It is further forward where Chelsea could do with strengthening. Mourinho used fewer players than any other manager in the Premier League last season, showing both his trust in his first-choice team and, perhaps, doubts about the lack of depth. Fàbregas and Matic dovetailed beautifully at the base of Chelsea’s midfield for most of last season but there were times in the second half when they seemed jaded or vexed by the strain of having to play nearly every match. Is Ruben Loftus-Cheek ready to step in?
The Garden of Eden
Eden Hazard was the one creative player who consistently delivered for Chelsea, at times being the most thrilling player in the league. But the extent to which Chelsea came to depend on him was not healthy and triggered the question as to how they would cope if the Belgian were to be sidelined by a heinous foul or the cumulative effect of constant petty ones. Willian was regularly dynamic and inventive too but still needs to embellish his game with goals while Oscar and Ramires were erratic last term. Juan Cuadrado raised concerns that the player who had looked so good for Colombia during the World Cup was secretly replaced by a Doppelgänger. Maybe one or all members of that trio will regain their best form, or maybe Mourinho should buy an upgrade or two.
Uncertainty also hovers over Chelsea’s strikers. Costa proved a wonderfully potent and belligerent Premier debutant last term (but failed to score in the Champions League), unpleasant and deadly in a way defences despise and supporters must admire. But his hamstring proved equally pesky towards the end of the season and Chelsea will hope that problem has been remedied and no other one emerges; if it does then Loic Rémy, a less abrasive but faster and cutting replacement, will have to fill the breach again or Falcao will be given a chance to show that his bluntness at United last season was not a symptom of terminal decline.
Chelsea remain the team to catch, but there are enough doubts about the champions to give other clubs hope if they can sort themselves out.