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|07-21-2012, 05:34 AM||#1 (permalink)|
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Chelsea storms into U.S. tour reloaded and demanding respect
SEATTLE – There was a moment midway through the first half of Wednesday night's friendly between Chelsea and the Seattle Sounders when the hometown fans smelled blood.
Chelsea, with its defense and offense simultaneously in disarray, was looking less like a team that had just won the Champions League two months prior and more like one that was struggling to keep up with a middle-of-the-pack team in a second-tier league.
The Sounders had started to gain the momentum after forward Fredy Montero scored back-to-back goals that knotted the match at two apiece. The crowd of 53,309 at CenturyLink Field - much of which was decked out in Sounder Blue and Rave Green – was feeding off the team’s play, jumping and cheering at Boeing decibel levels.
A few hecklers in particular that were situated in the team's main supporters' group, known as the Emerald City Supporters, repeatedly belted out "overrated" to seemingly unfazed members of the Blues on the field.
Granted, Chelsea was playing its first game of its U.S. exhibition tour without several of its key players such as John Terry, Fernando Torres, Juan Mata, Raul Meireles and Ashley Cole. And granted, the team swiftly regained control of the game and cruised to a 4-2 victory over Seattle.
But the sentiment that Chelsea is overrated goes beyond cliché taunting from a few intoxicated locals. Many soccer fans and sports writers globally would tend to agree.
Despite a magical run to win the FA Cup and the Champions League, Chelsea finished just sixth in the Premier League last year. And the combination of an aging roster, Terry’s off-field problems, the underachieving Torres, an inexperienced coach and the departure of striker Didjer Drogba has not made the Blues a popular choice to repeat.
This is why a preseason trip to America is just what Chelsea needs.
Not only does the roster briefly escape the intense media bubble in the United Kingdom, but it’s also a chance for manager Roberto Di Matteo to develop team chemistry. Remember, this will be Di Matteo’s first full season as manager after he took over for Andre Villas Boas late last season and essentially rescued the Blues from an almost lost season.
These friendlies also serve as an opportunity for Di Matteo to assess the club’s new additions and younger talent. Critics say this team's old guard is aging fast and needs to reload.
"We were looking to (have) a good workout, good possession, some good combination play and slowly integrate new players," Di Matteo said after the Sounders game. The former Italian international said he wants to "also see some of our younger talents that we have in the club that will hopefully be the future of the club."
One player who took advantage of the extended minutes was 19-year-old Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku. Blessed with a unique combination of strength and size (he's listed at 6-foot-3, 210 lbs), the second-year player displayed his ability to slide past defenders with crafty dribbling as well as finish plays in transition. He ended the match with two goals.
"Even if it’s a friendly, it's good for my confidence," Lukaku said. "And we were able to win our first game as European champions, so it’s good."
Fans will see a more complete Chelsea roster as the team embarks on the East Coast leg of the tour. Terry, the controversial but talented center back who has recently been acquitted of a racism charge, is expected to join Chelsea this weekend in New York against Paris Saint-Germain at Yankee Stadium. Torres, Mata, Malouda and Cole will join the team later in the four-game tour which also stops in Philadelphia and Miami.
This season is crucial for Torres. Arguably the best forward in the world two years ago, he has been widely viewed as a disappointment since he signed for a reported 50 million pounds in 2011. Although he won the Golden Boot at Euro 2012 and iced the semifinal upset victory over Barcelona in the Champions League with a late goal, he has been the subject of intense media scrutiny for disappearing in games and underachieving. All eyes will be on the Spanish star as he tries to use these exhibitions to set the tone for a breakout season.
Even his coach wouldn't sugar coat the pressure.
"I expect him next season to be a fantastic player with us," Di Matteo told the British press earlier this month.
Because a breakout season is really what Chelsea needs. Not just from Torres, but from many of their players, ranging from old hands like Cole and Michael Essien to new additions like Eden Hazard and Marko Marin.
With a weaker squad last season, the west London club snuck up on a lot of teams during the Champions League. But now the target is on its back. Clubs within England and Europe will be strapped to the tube this week, seeing if Chelsea has the potential to repeat or is just an overpriced/overhyped franchise.
In other words, they're smelling blood.
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