For the majority of sports owners, winning is good enough. After all, trophies are not awarded for entertainment value but on the basis of wins, losses and points gained. Top of the pile, by any measure, means dominance. But ever since the Roman Abramovich era began at Stamford Bridge in 2003, Chelsea managers have been judged on more than silverware and league position.
The Russian has shelled out hundreds of millions with the intention of not only establishing a stranglehold on the major trophies, but doing so with a stylish swagger and a thrill-a-minute style of play. This is no easy feat and even the great Jose Mourinho could not (or chose not to) meet the combined expectation of flair and wins.
But, now into his tenth season at the helm, Abramovich might be about to get his wish. Chelsea boss Roberto Di Matteo enjoyed a fairytale four months in the hot seat last season, with the Blues riding a gritty, disciplined game plan all the way to an FA Cup and Champions League double. While the club have struggled in their bid to defend their European crown, Di Matteo’s men have established themselves as true Premier League title contenders, despite the John Terry saga and Frank Lampard’s decreased role.
This summer, Di Matteo made the additions to his squad that give him the freedom to turn Chelsea from disciplined to daring. The Italian has done his part in embracing the need to move on from the focus on grit and power to mouth-watering attacking displays crafted by midfield schemers. The rest? Well, that depends on the Blues’ outstanding creative trio of Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar.
While Hazard and Oscar arrived during the summer, Mata is into his second season and has relished the responsibility of being the senior member of the trio. Having spent much of Spain’s Euro 2012 campaign on the bench, his performances thus far for Chelsea have spoken of a man who was itching to show his value all summer.
Mata’s ability to add goalscoring to his list of attributes has taken his game to another level. His lethal double against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane turned the game on its head and his perfectly curled free-kick at the Emirates was the knockout blow for Arsenal. He is enjoying the freedom afforded him by Di Matteo, who he calls “the perfect manager”.
But it was Hazard who first announced the shift to a more stylish game plan. The opening week of the season, where Chelsea played twice due to their upcoming European Super Cup commitments, showcased Hazard’s potential. The 21-year-old Belgian beat his man at will and his pace and trickery led to goals and penalties. He has slowed down a little since then but has adjusted to the physicality of English football faster than anyone could have anticipated.
Oscar, meanwhile, waited a couple of extra weeks before imposing himself with a sublime two-goal haul against Juventus, no less, the same side that won Serie A last season without a single loss. Despite looking lightweight, Oscar’s balance and technique have been deadly and he too, at just 21, looks like spearheading Chelsea’s attacking surges for years to come.
The beauty of the trio for Di Matteo is the ease with which they can swap positions. Hazard might start on the right, but typically ends up all over the pitch. Similarly, Mata’s cultured left foot means he often strays to the left flank one minute, then moves more centrally the next. For defenders, it is the ultimate headache, sparking confusion and holes to exploit. Pick your poison.
The upcoming clash against Manchester United presents the next test as Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie head to Stamford Bridge for what promises to be a goalfest. Manchester United’s defensive woes are well-documented and were exposed yet again by Braga in the Champions League in midweek. The timing could not be worse for Sir Alex Ferguson’s patched up back four, which lacks pace and confidence, to be facing the Mata-Hazard-Oscar attacking force.
The trio’s impact, along with valuable input from Di Matteo, has even served to revive Fernando Torres, much maligned over the past year. The Spaniard is not all the way back to the level of his Liverpool days but he looks a far greater threat than he did at any time last season. The creativity in midfield has given him every opportunity to find the net and his tally of four Premier League goals does not do justice to his work rate and improved performances.
For Abramovich, the Manchester United game will be a particularly significant day – a real test of this new entertaining Chelsea era. The Russian is witnessing the kind of flowing football he has craved and the results have come hand-in-hand. If the Mata-Hazard-Oscar trio can stay fit, the Blues might just fulfil Abramovich’s dream of winning trophies while thrilling crowds.
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