chelsea look for quality

In the last close-season, Manchester United signed Carlos Tevez, Owen Hargreaves, Nani, Anderson and Tomasz Kuszczak; Chelsea bought Florent Malouda, Juliano Belletti, Claudio Pizarro, Tal Ben Haim and Steve Sidwell.

It would be facile to say that the destination of either the Premier League or the Champions' League was decided there and then, but it is clear who did the better summer's work, and that trying to catch up by spending £24 million (Dh180m) in January on Nicolas Anelka and Branislav Ivanovic [cries of "who?"] did the London club no good whatever. How do they strengthen the squad now under a new manager in attempting to [Stamford] Bridge what in the end were astonishingly narrow margins in the two major competitions?

"The game's about players," is one of the favourite sayings of Harry Redknapp, manager of a club who would not have been tipped anywhere to finish the season with more trophies than Chelsea.

Two things may be said in defence of Jose Mourinho – for he, remember, not Avram Grant, was manager of Chelsea last summer. First, the manager there has less autonomy than at any of the other major clubs. Second, last summer, his principal rivals all had greater success in persuading their respective boards to sanction serious spending.

Sir Alex Ferguson was in a position of strength, having just won the Premier League and with the emotional target of Champions' League success 50 years after Munich as an incentive. Liverpool's Rafael Benitez lost no time, the morning after losing the European Cup final to Milan, in going public with demands for immediate investment, and was rewarded with £50m to spend on Fernando Torres among others.

Even Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, complaining that Chelsea have tilted the supposedly level playing field, spent almost exactly the same amount. Roman Abramovich, reported to have loaned the club £578m since taking over, was reluctant to authorise huge sums last year and his chief executive, Peter Kenyon, remains committed to the notion of breaking even by 2010-11, a date which he must feel is alarmingly close; Chelsea's last reported loss was £74.8m.

Kenyon says the aim this time is to buy no more than two or three players, but at the top end of the market: "It's more about tweaking than a complete rebuild. It's quality we're after, and they won't be cheap." But that was before Avram Grant was sacked last week. New managers always want new players and plenty of them.

Jose Bosingwa from Porto is already on board, at £16.2m, the latest proposed costly solution to the problem at right-back, which Glen Johnson £5m, Paulo Ferreira £13.2, Khalid Boul-ahrouz £6m, Belletti £4m and Ivanovic £9m are all supposed to have solved.

Ivanovic, signed from Lokomotiv Moscow four months ago, has never played for the first team, having been considered insufficiently fit. Other arrivals will depend on who the new man wants to stay.

Didier Drogba is still likely to depart with a wave of the hand – the one that struck Nemanja Vidic in the face four minutes from the end of the Champions League final, earned a red card and meant he was not on the pitch to take a penalty ahead of John Terry and Anelka. The club's chairman Bruce Buck confirmed that the club would try to keep Drogba, saying: "We have to sit down with him and see what the story is and what his future is. He is a great player, I hope he stays."

However, the club is confident that Frank Lampard will stay, even if Mourinho pitches up at Internazionale and tries to lure him away. It is not inconceivable that all five of last summer's signings could leave, though Malouda, picked ahead of Salomon Kalou for the final, is more highly regarded inside the club than outside.

Sidwell is expected to go the way of Scott Parker, signed from a smaller club but unable to break through; Belletti can hardly be encouraged by the sight of two other expensive right-backs; Ben Haim is no better than fourth-choice centre-half; and Pizarro has scored twice in 32 games. Andriy Shevchenko, wanted by his former club Milan, is also dispensable as long as Abramovich approves. Assuming Drogba leaves, the lack of strikers would be to the advantage of Anelka. His fragile confidence further diminished by missing the final penalty in Moscow, he claimed that he should be used through the middle, rather than stuck out on the flanks. Indeed, his one contribution to Chelsea's title challenge was while wearing a Bolton shirt, when he scored the winning goal to beat United at the Reebok Stadium in November.

So the season could begin with Anelka as central striker in the 4-3-3 system with which he thrived at Bolton; or a new foreign superstar like Real Madrid's Robinho in a different formation under a new coach. (The Independent)

 

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