A winless pre-season and all of the frustration and pessimism which naturally follows means tomorrow’s match against Swansea City will be the club’s least anticipated opening day fixture for a very long time. The flipside of the contest not being its usual occasion of great excitement and intrigue, is that a good performance and a victory has the potential to sweep close to all negativity currently surrounding our preparation, under the proverbial rug.
John Terry’s glowing reviews of Radamel Falcao in training, Falcao’s equally affirmative assessment of the dressing room spirit and the resolution of the manager in putting an underwhelming set of pre-season displays into perspective, is all suggestive of a side not quite as downbeat as its fan-base is at the moment. Naturally these are the kind of comments you’d expect the club to publish regardless of how preparations are actually going; there are however genuine reasons for optimism and confidence leading into tomorrow’s game – reasons to believe that a victory is to be expected, rather than just reservedly hoped for. Our record on the opening day of the season is remarkable (with a 0-0 draw at Stoke in 2011 our only blip in recent history); the manager has a full squad list to choose from with the possible exception of Diego Costa; we’ve also never failed to win a home league game against Swansea, a side who always endeavour to give us a game, usually resulting in an entertaining contest, in which our superior talent rarely fails to make the difference.
Last year our away game at The Liberty Stadium was highlighted multiple times in the ensuing months as our final performance of any real conviction or quality during our run in to the title. I think it’s very unlikely we’ll come across that side that crumbled so feebly in midfield, to eventfully lose 5-0. I think Welsh club actually snuck under the radar somewhat with how impressive they were last season (being overshadowed by Southampton in the over-achieving department).
Garry Monk I think has done an underrated job, taking up the manager’s post when only 35 years old, inheriting a dressing room which Michael Laudrup had allowed to become fractured to the point of no repair, he has done brilliantly to refresh the squad on a minimum budget whilst maintaining the refreshingly proactive, ambitious style of play that was their trademark under the Dane and Brendan Rodgers. The Swans opening day defeat of Man Utd, and their completing of the double of Arsenal shows they are not to be taken lightly. Even if they find that improving on their record breaking season is beyond their capabilities this term, they will be a dangerous opponent for all of the top sides throughout.
The lack of any new major signings means that the first team of the season should be unusually easy to predict, most likely the XI that started almost game last season when fit. The only question is the only question Mourinho ever seemed to ask himself last season when rotating his squad: shall I play Oscar, or go for a more defensive option? Ramires’ terrible performance in the Community Shield should mean he’ll elect to play the former. I’d like to think he will anyway.
He may not be in Courtois’ league, but the Swans Polish keeper was comfortably one of the best in the league last season; he may even be his manager’s most astute signing to date. Argentinean centre half Fernandez proved a surprisingly smart buy as well after such a terrible World Cup. Frank Tabanou should be an upgrade on aging left back Neil Taylor also. In midfield, former Chelsea youngster, Jack Cork, is another, more defensive option, whilst Ki Sung-Yueng and Gylfi Sigurdsson are the side’s two great creative talents. Andre Ayew (son of African legend, Abedi Pele) should come straight into the side and play on the wings with either Wayne Routledge or Nathan Dyer. Bafetimbi Gomis will compete will new signing Eder for the centre forward role vacated by Wilfried Bony back in January.
I’ve marked next to each name on my predicted line-up, a score out of 10, ranking each players pre-season form over our five warm up games. With all three forwards looking sluggish, and with Oscar and Cesc still someway short of their best, our last two matches in particular against Arsenal and Fiorentina, have been reminiscent of matches from Mourinho’s first season back in charge, in which a dearth of midfield creativity and a total lack of sharpness made our performances frustratingly and helplessly blunt. Our squad players still aren’t really coming close to pushing the regular first XI for a starting place (with the possible exception of Kurt Zouma pushing Cahill) and so we need our starters to recover some form quickly. If they don’t this could be a long and depressing opening couple of months, with the early fixtures we have. If they do however, then they’re still arguably the best starting XI in the Premier League, let’s hope they play like it tomorrow.