Chelsea’s Costa capture and Fabregas flair give them title edge
Jose Mourinho bemoaned a lack of firepower at Chelsea last term, but two new arrivals, one who is already familiar to Premier League fans, has tipped the balance of power firmly in their favour, if the bookies are to be believed.
Coral have the Blues at a guaranteed leading industry price of 19/10 as pre-season title favourites, and with good reason. Signing ex-Arsenal skipper Cesc Fabregas, following a spell at boyhood club Barcelona where he simply was not appreciated by managers and supporters, is nothing short of a ‘Special One’ masterstroke.
A big question always hanging over Chelsea was how could they replace Frank Lampard when age caught up with him? In one fell swoop, aided by the Gunners turning down their first refusal on Fabregas, Mourinho has a brilliant box-to-box successor for the departed Stamford Bridge star.
“Frank is the history of the club, history nobody can forget,” Mourinho said. “Fabregas is the future; history is history but the future is more important at the moment. My opinion, and the opinion of my players, is that Fabregas is the right player to occupy that central position in midfield.”
Such words will be music to Fabregas’ ears. At Barca and on international duty with Spain, the presence of Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta meant he was shunted out of position into nominal wide berths or even deployed as a false number nine.
When last playing regularly in a forward-thinking engine room role, Fabregas scored 15 Premier League goals and assisted 13 others. In all competitions for Arsenal that season (2009/10), his average was better than one every other game. Fabregas is a 66/1 shot to leading top-flight scorer, and a shorter 8/1 to be leading Chelsea marksman.
Synergy between him and another £30m plus buy, Diego Costa, is the premise upon which Blues success should be built this term. The Brazilian-born Spanish striker disappointed global audiences in the Champions League final and at the World Cup on native soil, but this was due to a lack of match fitness rather than being over-rated.
Ask any La Liga defender who they feared facing last season. Behind Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, they would almost certainly name-drop Costa. His penalty box poaching fired Atletico Madrid to a historic Spanish top-flight title for the first time since 1996, and broke a decade-long El Clasico stronghold on that league crown.
Costa has a big reputation and price tag to live up to, but is just 11/2 to be Premier League top scorer this season. He will not want for supply, both centrally from creative forces Fabregas and Oscar, and especially down the left flank with old Atletico teammate Filipe Luis overlapping Eden Hazard.
Didier Drogba’s return to the Bridge, at the expense of Demba Ba, Samuel Eto’o and Romelu Lukaku, certainly adds something in attack both on and off the field. A fans’ favourite, Mourinho’s intention here is a mentor for Costa, who will relish the physical aspects of Premier League football anyway.
Who will play in goal? Old faithful Petr Cech and brilliant Belgium number one Thibaut Courtois are set for a big battle for whom gets the nods between the sticks. Mourinho dropped Iker Casillas at Real Madrid around a similar age, but that may have been more about Bernabeu dressing room politics than anything else.
Courtois clearly impressed in a title-winning team at Atletico that kept more clean sheets than anyone else. If he ousts Cech, then that will just be two changes to the Blues’ back five from last term. That apart, expect continuity aplenty from Chelsea, although David Luiz was sold to PSG.
Branislav Ivanovic, John Terry and Gary Cahill remain resolute defenders. French man mountain Kurt Zouma, signed up from St-Etienne in January, remains one for the future, while Nathan Ake could get similarly limited first-team exposure. Cesar Azpilicueta, meanwhile, may have to accept a chop and change policy during his third campaign in west London.
Nemanja Matic looks set to join Fabregas in midfield as anchor, meaning Ramires and John Obi Mikel slip down the pecking order. Don’t forget about Marco van Ginkel either, who spent so much of last season sidelined by a serious knee injury. Ahead of them are abundant advanced options.
Willian, Andre Schurrle, Mohamed Salah and Victor Moses are realistically competing for a single spot wide right, though there is always an element of pragmatism in Mourinho team selections. Fernando Torres, meanwhile, looks like being a substitute at best.
The strength in depth, apart from a select few elite European clubs, is frightening then, and directs us towards trophy specials. How many can the ‘Special One’ bring to Chelsea this term after missing out on all fronts last term? Odds of 10/1 say Mourinho can bag the Blues a European trophy this season, and collect the only honour eluding him from across his two spells at the club.