Whereas last season, as a fan base we anticipated our opening matches with intense excitement and intrigue, following the return of Jose Mourinho, this time around, the predominant emotions are ones more of expectation, along with a confidence that this will finally be our season, where we re-assert ourselves as the best team in the country. Tuesday night capped off a close to perfect pre-season and reaffirmed the quality of the recruitment carried out by the club this summer. It’s hard to argue that we look as strong now as we have done for at least five years, maybe even longer.
Traditionally, in recent times we’ve almost invariably made excellent starts to the season, which, given our fixture list for the opening few months of the campaign, could prove to be more crucial than ever. With away games at Man City, Man Utd, Everton and Liverpool to negotiate before the 9th of November, picking up victories against the likes of Burnley is essential if we’re to keep with the pace, early on. And though a win on Monday night would hardly seem a momentous achievement or a particularly threatening sign to our title rivals, it was against the likes of Burnley where we threw the league away last season, and a confident win in Lancashire this weekend would be an encouraging, welcome sign that our inability to deal with such opposition is happily a thing of the past.
On paper, the match can simply be billed as the best versus the worst side in the Premier League, with the two clubs favourites with the bookmakers for league glory and relegation respectively. In reality, it might not be as straightforward. Almost certainly, the Claret’s greatest strength this season is their manager, Sean Dyche, who last year managed to inspire some excellent football from a fairly limited group, passing out from the back, pressing from the front and scoring plenty of goals, mainly through the young English strike partnership of Danny Ings and Sam Voakes. He stuck to an extremely consistent line-up and formation all throughout the campaign and looks set to continue with something similar, playing simple, positive football. This is probably the best way to go in terms of picking up the 10 or so wins they’ll need to survive in a division filled with an unfortunate number of mediocre teams these days. Up against the bigger sides though, Burnley might not be so well set up to defend and could be vulnerable to counter attacks down the flanks.
For the home side, goalkeeper Tom Heaton came through the ranks at Manchester Utd and proved a good signing last season. At full back, Kieran Trippier is a good player but Ben Mee probably isn’t of Premier League quality; Dyche could do with adding another centre half to his squad as well, where Captain Jason Shackell is in need of better support than Michael Duff – the club veteran who turns 37 in January.
In midfield, the experienced Dean Marney will sit in front of the back four while David Jones plays slightly further forward. Michael Kightly, who impressed on loan from Stoke last year, will start on the right, while new signing Matt Taylor will compete with Scott Arfield for a place on the left. Up front Lukas Jutkiewicz will support Ings, with Voakes unavailable through injury.
As for Chelsea, it’s difficult to tell whom Mourinho deems appropriately match fit to start the game. Filipe Luis is still yet to complete 90 minutes throughout pre-season, as are the rest of the squad’s Brazilian players. Andre Schurrle is perhaps the only player who definitely won’t be involved, otherwise, everyone else should be considered available for selection. As it stands, you’d say only Terry, Cahill, Matic, Cesc, Hazard and Costa are guaranteed to be in the XI.
It seems clear that for Mourinho however, there are only three big decisions he needs to make. The first of which, i.e. whether Cech or Courtois starts in goal, he claims to have already made, but is keeping to himself for now, with the Belgian keeper most people’s tip at this stage. At right back, the fan base is split between Ivanovic and Azpilicueta, with both having been regulars last season; the Serb’s greater familiarity with the position from last season might see him get the nod initially. Whilst finally, it may not be an issue for Monday, but at some point the manager will have to decide whether Willian, or Andre Schurrle will be his first choice to start league games on the right wing. The Brazilian clearly enjoyed a better debut season, but with Oscar likely to be a regular, eventually we may find that Schurrle provides some useful variety to our attacks with his directness. There should be good competition in that area all season.
Though Turf Moor could prove to be an imposing away ground for some bigger sides this season, it’s hard to imagine Burnley posing much of a threat on Monday night. In truth, this is a side seriously lacking in depth and Premier League quality and it will struggle hugely to play their usual intense possession game against this Chelsea midfield. Being forced to chase the ball more often could expose them physically as well.
But while it would be nice to start the season with an away day thrashing, I think we’ll see a performance more reminiscent of our previous two opening day encounters against Hull and Wigan Athletic. Where on both occasions we started extremely quickly, took an early lead and saw out the game comfortably through the second half. Everything seems in place for Chelsea to achieve some fantastic results this season; Monday night will hopefully be the beginning of a classic campaign.