Back-to-back away days certainly does not make Chelsea’s start to the season any more easy, but facing West Brom at the Hawthornes could represent an ideal opportunity to register three points. It is by no means a guarantee that Jose Mourinho’s will secure a comfortable victory given the ever-rising level of quality across the Premier League that the manager alluded to during pre-season, and we all know that any Tony Pulis side is tougher than old boots to break down. However, I feel the trip to the West Midlands stands out as Chelsea’s best chance to put a win on the board during a difficult opening month that could indicate whether the Blues have the character and quality to defend their title.
The turmoil and controversy that has been caused by suspending first team doctor Eva Carneiro has come at the worst possible time for Chelsea; it may be a ploy from Mourinho to divert the pressure off the team and onto the medical staff who he felt risked Chelsea’s chances of holding onto a point against Swansea when Eden Hazard picked up a late knock. Carneiro was simply doing her job from a medical procedural prospective, but whether her actions could be considered a slight error of judgement or not given the situation in the match, publicly criticising her during the post-match interview and even after the game is not the sort of breakdown in relationship we need. This, compounded with Thibaut Courtois’ suspension, is the sort of disruption that I can’t see being of any help to harmony on and off the pitch.
Chelsea may well have been already in party mood after sealing the Premier League title, but there can be no doubt that Mourinho will be seeking revenge after the surprise 3-0 defeat at the Hawthornes in May when an extremely strong line-up, including promising teenager Ruben Loftus-Cheek, were simply turned over. It is proof, if needed, that the Baggies will not simply roll over and allow Chelsea to have it their own way, even though the Blues are resounding 8/13 favourites to win the game. These odds are even more surprising when you consider the Hawthornes has not exactly been a happy hunting ground for Chelsea over the years. Losing twenty-one of the thirty-three encounters at West Brom is more than enough to make me believe that Chelsea will have to show battling qualities, along with the customary creative flair and defensive solidity, to get anything from the game. You have to go back to April 2011 for the last time Chelsea came away from the West Midlands with all three points thanks to goals from Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou and Frank Lampard. West Brom subsequent won three of the next four encounters on their own turf as they usually stand up to the challenge when Chelsea come to town – it is up to the Blues to at least equal, if not better, their opponents in the effort and commitment departments.
Tony Pulis often receives criticism for not playing an attractive brand of football, but I feel his efforts often go unnoticed and unappreciated by purists who expect teams to always entertain. He effectively ensured West Brom’s survival last season the second he walked through the door – that is the sort of impact that any manager would be proud of, but he followed up his fine reputation for improving teams that appear to be relegation cannon fodder and pushing them safe of danger. I have also been impressed with the business they have conducted so far during the summer transfer window, with James Chester, Rickie Lambert and record signing Salomon Rondon representing excellent signings. The latter could prove to a real handful if Pulis hands him his home debut, while Saido Berahino has the pace to trouble John Terry and Gary Cahill if West Brom manage to get in behind the backline.
Mourinho has a reputation for being more conservative in games he expects to be more of a battle than a free-flowing game, which opens up the question of whether he trusts Oscar to make an impact when he does not have the physical presence that Chelsea may require in midfield. Asmir Begovic will undoubtedly sit behind Chelsea’s first-choice back four, but I feel that Ramires or John Obi Mikel would be much better suited alongside Nemanja Matic to add more protection and strength to the defensive midfield area. It almost feels inevitable that Oscar will have to make do with a place on the bench as Cesc Fabregas would move into the number ten role to create space for Ramires (I think he is likely to get the nod ahead of Mikel). Radamel Falcao is an obvious choice if Diego Costa struggles to prove his fitness in time, as although Loic Remy offers the pace in behind to trouble West Brom’s defence, the physical presence and movement of the Colombian striker is better suited to face physical opponents.