I wrote Chelsea off – I have egg on my face


Last season, Roberto Di Matteo guided Chelsea to sixth place in the Premier League – the club’s lowest position for years. They were far too inconsistent and many said it could have possibly been the closing chapter on some of the club’s senior stars. Indeed, talisman Didier Drogba departed in the summer after giving eight years of great service to the club. Despite their lowly (by their standards) league placing, they did, however, win the Champions League – owner Roman Abramovich finally acquiring his much-coveted piece of European silverware. The big Ivorian netted the winning penalty in the shoot-out victory against Bayern Munich and he enjoyed a fitting swan song.

Now, honestly, despite that Champions League victory (let’s be honest, it was quite miraculous), I would never have had Chelsea down as title contenders for this season but now, as we enter the congested winter period, I can safely say that they’ve proved this writer wrong – and then some. Di Matteo purchased shrewdly in the summer transfer window, adding midfield poise with young Brazilian Oscar, much-rated Belgian playmaker Eden Hazard and Nigerian forward Victor Moses. Much was also made of Fernando Torres’ role in the wake of Drogba’s departure – would he come to the fore? Would he remain a shrinking violet in an evolving side?

Whatever the critics might have been saying about Di Matteo’s men towards the end of last season (they finished meekly in all fairness), similar words certainly won’t have been said in the last six or seven weeks as the blues have been cooking on gas, confidently sweeping teams aside with, arguably, the most attractive football seen at the Bridge in years. Their infamous brawn, with which they became so synonymous under Jose Mourinho, remains but they have added a certain style and panache to their play – making this current side very easy on the eye.

The Belgian Hazard has impressed very well from the off with his intelligent running and passing, and Juan Mata, in only his second season at the club has also emerged as a key player with a number of exciting performances on the left of midfield. John Obi Mikel has proven himself to be an important part of Di Matteo’s plans, anchoring the midfield well and allowing Hazard and Mata to dictate things going forward. Torres, often playing the lone striker, has also started to find his scoring feet with goals in key games – namely in the win against Arsenal. His intelligent positional sense and constant movement has always been there, now he is starting to add goals to the mix – an ingredient that was seriously lacking in the last campaign.

The team’s rigid 4-5-1 system, oft-used to stifle teams’ creativity and grind out results, has proven to have the opposite effect under the Italian Di Matteo, in that it has given key midfielders Hazard, Mata and Oscar licence to get at teams with Mikel and Ramires filling in behind them. You only need look at their latest victory at Tottenham as an example of how this team is progressing under the current regime. In front – behind – back in front – the game swung to and fro but the Blues, even when the chips were down, continued to attack with craft and guile, eventually running out deserving victors in a thrilling 4-2 win, in which Mata was outstanding.

The games which would have been considered big tests – Arsenal and Spurs at their respective grounds – have been safely negotiated, both games comfortably going in Chelsea’s favour. Last season it may not have been the case but this side is made of more stylish stuff. Both Manchester sides are yet to come – indeed, United are in town this Sunday – but with the way Di Matteo’s men are currently playing, you can imagine it’s the champions and last season’s runners-up who should be running scared. The European champions are looking a tasty bet for a return to Premier League glory; three years without a league title is surely too much for Chelsea’s ruthless Russian owner.

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