Pre-Season: An encouraging start in Seattle
Precisely two months to the day since that unforgettable, unsurpassable night in Munich, Chelsea got their 2012-13 pre-season campaign off to a start in the early hours of this (British) morning in Seattle against the Sounders. The touring party had been in the city for a few days after flying out over the weekend and had been boosted by the return of Florent Malouda and Ashley Cole in recent days, though neither was in the right shape to be considered for selection in this opening game.
As ever with the early stages of pre-season the emphasis was on the players’ collective fitness levels, and so the appearance of the maximum 22 players on the field for the Blues was no real surprise. With no recognised left-back ready to feature (with Bertrand at the Olympics and Van Aanholt recently loaned back out to Vitesse) Paulo Ferreira picked up full back duties on that flank, with Nathaniel Chalobah on the right and David Luiz, Branislav Ivanovic and Hilario making up the back five. It was a return to the first team for the 17-year-old FA Youth Cup-winning skipper, having not featured since last summer, and he equipped himself capably in a most unfamiliar back four.
Josh McEachran, back in the Chelsea mix after a disappointing loan spell at Swansea, and John Obi Mikel sat deep as the two holding midfield players, while new signings Eden Hazard and Marko Marin started further up the field, alongside newly-returned loanee Yossi Benayoun and behind Romelu Lukaku.
It was certainly a game of two halves at the Century Link Field, where an impressive 53,000 came to watch, with the first the far more enjoyable of the two, containing all six goals along with, and probably because of, some sloppy defending from both sides. It was the visitors who started like the team who were midway through a domestic season, not the Sounders, and it was 2-0 Chelsea after just 11 minutes. Lukaku, playing like he had a point to prove throughout, got the first after just a few minutes, latching on to an excellent McEachran pass after the Englishman had won the ball in midfield and finishing neatly over the goalkeeper.
The Blues’ lead was doubled 8 minutes later when Hazard showed great strength and desire to spin in behind down the left flank before a heavily-deflected right-footed effort beat the goalkeeper and landed in the back of the net. It was a debut goal for the Belgian, who was bright, inventive and willing throughout. He lined up behind Lukaku in the #10 role, a position he has admitted is his preferred, and seemed to have an uncanny ability to find space in such a usually crowed area of the field.
The American hosts seemed out of their depth but were gifted a way back into the game after a quarter of an hour. McEachran gave the ball away on the edge of his own penalty area, his pass as poor as many others in the final third were excellent, and the Columbian Montero took full advantage to slot past a helpless Hilario.
Marin looked lively out on the left flank, his quick feet bamboozling defenders and his tendency to cut inside onto his right foot providing a real threat. He linked up well with Hazard on frequent occasions and seemed intent on joining his fellow new boy on the score-sheet. That would eventually come to pass, though not before the Sounders drew level.
The visitors had been pushed on to the back foot, with Ivanovic having to made a smart intervention to take the ball off Eddie Johnson’s toe as he bared down on goal and Hilario forced into a smart save around the post from the impressive Fernandez. However, the Portuguese stopper could do little to stop Montero grabbing an equaliser after half an hour, with a tidy finish from the edge of the area after some sustained pressure from the hosts.
Marin’s debut goal would come in a four-minute flurry at the end of the half that turned the game back on its head. The little German found himself in plenty of space down the left side and fortune once again sided with Chelsea as his effort was deflected in. Four minutes later and Lukaku had grabbed his second; Marin turned supplier with a well-weighted through ball and, despite a stumble, the big Belgian centre-forward managed to round the ‘keeper and tuck the ball into an empty net.
The interval would bring seven changes from Roberto Di Matteo; Hilario, Chalobah, Marin, Mikel, McEachran, Benayoun and Luiz all departed to make way for Jamal Blackman, Sam Hutchinson, Gary Cahill, Frank Lampard, Michael Essien, Ramires and Kevin De Bruyne. Blackman and De Bruyne entered to make their Chelsea debuts.
The second half was a much less entertaining, much more interrupted period, with plenty of changes from both sides and a couple of injuries to contend with too, thankfully not for the Blues. De Bruyne started on the left and looked keen to join Hazard and Marin on the debut-goal list, however his shooting boots appeared left in the changing room. Cahill was back marshalling the back four and making those last-ditch tackles that typified our journey to Munich, leaving Blackman with very little to deal with at all.
Todd Kane, George Saville, Lucas Piazon and Gael Kakuta all entered the fray after about an hour, the former three all making their first team bows. Saville and Kane went to left back and right back respectively, while Kakuta came wide-left with De Bruyne shifting across to the middle and Piazon up front. The withdrawal of Lukaku, the only real recognised centre-forward at Di Matteo’s disposal at present, meant the visitors became much more interchangeable and fluid in the final third, though no fifth goal to round off proceedings was forthcoming.
Kane joined in attack whenever the opportunity presented itself, while Kakuta had some touches of brilliance and was equally adept when tracking back and helping out in his own penalty box.
The ultimate aim for Di Matteo, as with any opener in pre-season, was to give the bulk of his touring party some proper match practise and get their fitness levels up there once again. The manager used all 22 players available to him (only Ross Turnbull, Petr Cech, Patrick Bamford and the newly-arrived duo of Cole and Malouda missed out), making good his promise to give a handful an hour of action but the majority forty-five minutes each.
The new signings were exciting and involved; Hazard played an hour and was a constant threat throughout, marauding between the midfield and defence. His goal will probably go down as one of the scruffiest he’ll score for the club but he showed that his goalscoring will also be matched by a strong creative influence in the final third. Marin was lively down the left flank throughout the first half and De Bruyne equally so after the break, though both appear capable also more centrally. Their passing was sharp and precise and their understanding and fluidity with one another was most promising.
The young lads also stepped up the plate admirably. Chalobah was comfortable at right back for the first period, though some might argue restricted in that area of the field as opposed to a more central role. McEachran, despite one glitch for the Sounders’ opener, was assured as a deep-lying playmaker
However, it was Lukaku who grabbed the most attention, with a brace of goals and a performance that showed he means business this season. There has been some suggestion that he will be farmed out on loan this season, though there is every reason to argue he is now capable of the step up to becoming a first-team squad member. Provided with the service that the likes of Hazard, Marin and Juan Mata will inevitably provide, the 19-year-old seems confident that he can make an impact at Stamford Bridge this term.
The Blues now head to New York for the next leg of their Stateside tour, taking on Paris Saint-Germain on Sunday night (midnight kick-off GMT), where Fernando Torres, Raul Meireles and John Terry are expected to join the party. While the priority will remain focused on fitness levels and match practise, it has certainly been an encouraging start to life under Di Matteo, the permanent boss.
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