The Sophomore Blues

Celebrations in Asia. The last ones with Michy Batshuayi in charge of scoring?

Chelsea 3, Arsenal 0. In Beijing, the champions have smoothly outplayed Arsène Wenger’s experimental eleven, in a game so one-sided that only Willian’s poorly adjusted gunpoint prevented The Blues from running a complete riot. Lacazette, the £52 million answer to the centre-forward issues at Emirates, has barely got a sniff on the ball, let alone a single dangerous shot. Mesut Özil would make one or two flashy dribbles and then fade into the background, joining even more anonymous Alex Iwobi there. With those three players taken out of the game, it was CFC’s forwards who stole the show, making us all wonder again: how far Antonio Conte’s team can go in the next 12 months?

On a Chinese soil, the best team in England unleashed the strongest XI they could offer amidst Eden Hazard’s injury and Diego Costa’s impending departure. Teamwork-wise, it was as if the league season never ended – and yet, what looked the most impressive, was how much fitter and invigorated the players in blue were. Already ten minutes in, Conte’s team created three decent goalscoring opportunities and, though the chances have all been squandered, it only went from good to better. Overall, with three goals on the lightboard and a flurry of attacking zest from the team, these 90 minutes seemed like a good indication that the title holders are only going to move from strength to strength.

Unfortunately, that isn’t necessarily the case. First of all, the pitch at the Bird’s Nest Stadium was in a terrible shape, turning the entire match into a semi-random event marked by sloppiness. Secondly, with Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Per Mertesacker and Nacho Monreal covering the three defensive slots normally belonging to Mustafi, Koscielny and Holding, Gunners exposed themselves to trouble before Chelsea could do the same. And thirdly: by having Hazard sidelined, new signing Bakayoko and Rüdiger outside of the squad and new,  £70 million man Álvaro Morata still back in London, The Blues achieved victory with a squad still some way off it’s optimal configuration:

Morata’s arrival remains one of the most eye-catching and yet mysterious transfers of the year. Less than a month ago, it seemed that the stage is set for Romelu Lukaku’s reunion with his London friends. The man once banished by José Mourinho had both previous experience at the Stamford Bridge and 61 Premier League goals for Everton under his belt. Those two, important credentials, combined with Diego Costa’s desire to leave the UK capital, made the future attacking shape of Chelsea’s squad rather predictable. Or so we thought: until Manchester United suddenly pulled out of the negotiations for… Morata – and instead, immediately spent £75 million for the Belgian King-Kong.

From Red Devils’ point of view, £58 million upfront plus potential £12 million in add-ons paid by Roman Abramovich to Madrid is a pure insanity. Six months older than Lukaku, Morata boasts the record of 58 professional goals in 170 games for Real, Juventus and the Spanish national team. It wouldn’t look so bad for a 24-year forward – except for the fact that the other £70 million man, Luis Suárez, has scored 59 goals for Barcelona during the 2015/16 season alone. The best one-season haul his Spanish colleague can throw into this comparison is 20 goals scored this and last year for perhaps the strongest Real Madrid side ever. In money terms: that would be £3.5 million for each successful strike.

But what’s truly jaw-dropping is that Morata hasn’t even brought it on himself by his goalscoring indolence – he was simply just a substitute with a significantly reduced playing time. After racking up just 1334 minutes to his name, he only ranked 17th among the most frequent La Liga participants for Los Blancos – even the likes of Danilo, Mateo Kovačić and Lucas Vázquez kicked the ball more often. Unsurprisingly, with that second fiddle role, seven of his 20 goals have been the late strikes after entering the fray as a joker. Zinedine Zidane clearly had no intention of altering his highly successful starting XI just to accommodate the lad – and the outcome of the season has fully confirmed the validity of his strategy.

In London, the ex-Juventus loanee is unlikely to suffer from similar circumstances. Since Diego Costa has been packing his bags for virtually 6 months now, the greatest competition for the #9 role shall be Michy Batshuayi. The Belgian was a hero in May, when his goal at Hawthorns sealed the league trophy for Chelsea. He was also on target this weekend, perhaps finally creating some hope for himself after massively disappointing 235 Premier League minutes last season. Still: even after the heroic against Arsenal, it’s utterly unimaginable that he could bench a £70 million squad rival. The fact that he himself cost £33 million won’t help him – he already knows how is it to be the most expensive substitute in the world.

But then, there’s Diego Costa’s legacy. Like it or not, the Brazilian enfant terrible has built a superb record during his three-year stay in England. Only in the Premier League, he had a hand on 70 goals in 89 appearances, with shot conversion rates regularly topping those of Sergio Agüero, Harry Kane or aforementioned Lukaku. Both three years ago and in the last 10 months, it was his contributions that kickstarted the CFC’s title-winning seasons. A nightmarish beast to play against, recently, he’s even managed to control the excessive aggression in his play: he registered two, 10-game runs without a single booking. In a perfect world, all those traits in a 28-years old forward should still secure him a safe starting spot at Stamford Bridge.

Alas, perfect worlds don’t exist. Already in October, the tension between the forward and his manager has begun to build. Up 2-0 against Leicester, Costa has been denied a substitution despite carrying a knock and a yellow card.  This little incident escalated later, as the player has gone against the will of fitness coaches and pursued the rehabilitation of a back injury on his own. His formidable scoring run has dried up by Christmas; after the New Years’ Eve, he never came anywhere near the form he displayed in November. Just five goals in 17 league appearances meant that he crashed out of the race for a Golden Boot; he’s also returned to his old habit of picking up cautions week after week.

At times, it was smooth; then, their cooperation hit the rocks.

With Morata’s career ratio of one booking per 5.9 games, the problem of discipline is well out of the window – but it doesn’t mean that he’ll be able to fit into his predecessor’s shoes right away. Inexperienced in England, pressured by the massive weight of expectations, the 24-years old might need time to adjust to the system in which it’s actually him, who has to lead the line. So far, neither Juventus nor Real were willing to fully put such responsibility on the lad; even in the Spanish national team, he’s often been benched and forced to watch formidable efforts of some immigrant named… Diego Costa. Getting this kind of a player for only £5 million less than the fee paid by MU for Lukaku is definitely a risky solution by Antonio Conte.

The Italian boss has a lot at stake himself. His tremendous debut season has only inflated the expectations; already in February, Chelsea’s team spirit and consistency was identified as the missing traits in all other English clubs that were just about to embarrass themselves in the Champions League. Now that The Blues have arrived back to that competition themselves, they will surely count as a major hope for all islanders to finally bounce back in Europe. After all, unlike permanently revamped Manchester City, permanently boring Manchester United or depth-lacking Tottenham and Liverpool, Conte’s team has both the tools and the record of being an UCL powerhouse. To put it simple: England needs them to succeed. Badly.

Another thing is the boss’ reputation. At 47, he has more than enough managerial future ahead of him to catch up with José Mourinho and compete for the title of CFC’s most decorated commander-in-chief. The brilliant first season he’s got already; now, it’s time for back-to-back EPL medals and repeating the feat only the Portuguese genius was able to perform at Stamford Bridge. In fact, him and Carlo Ancelotti are still the two man for Conte to beat in terms of instant impact they’ve made in London. Both Mou and Don Carlo have aced his jobs by having Didier Drogba in his prime. Can the super-sub Morata, a notorious nomad circling between Turin and Madrid ever measure up to that name?


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