Despite heartbreaking defeat in the club’s first ever Premier League fixture seven years ago, the prospect of another opening fixture against Chelsea only recalls positive memories. It was a sunny, exciting and historic day for all of us when the reigning champions — Mourinho’s Chelsea at the height of their powers — rolled into town. They were a bit like current-day Manchester City at the time, with huge investment by a foreign billionaire and a young, charismatic and shrewd operator at the helm.
The match itself was an exciting end-to-end encounter resolved at the death by an injury time wonder strike by Argentine striker Hernan Crespo, moments after Andreas Johansson might have won it for Wigan at the other end. Chelsea would go on to win the league once again while Wigan would finish an amazing 10th, still a record.
Times have changed, and there is irony to it. Chelsea are now European champions but far from the power they were in England back in 2005. They finished 25 points adrift of eventual champions Manchester City last season, and trailed them by the exact same number in goal difference. It speaks volumes that despite winning the most prestigious of club competitions, they have been busier in the transfer market than any of their direct rivals. Most of the investment has been in attacking flair players, a group of expensive and talented but largely unproven young players Victor Moses may soon join. One gets the sense that Roberto Di Matteo — who may turn out to be a very good manager — rode his luck last year after Villas-Boas’ departure and is about to face a more realistic test of his managerial abilities. All in all, they have the air of a club in transition.
In comparison… and not only with Chelsea but most of our direct competitors in the lower half of the table, we have a healthy stability and momentum on our side. The new signings (and Victor Moses’ potential/likely departure) will add an element of the same to our side on Saturday, though I tend to think Martinez will line up with a familiar XI. His preference has always been to ease new signings into the side as the season goes on unless he feels they are exceptional talents or play in must-fill vacancies. On those grounds, Koné might make an appearance on Sunday, but still probably from the bench.
James MacArthur has very unfortunately missed out on most of the pre-season through injury and is 50-50 to start alongside James McCarthy at the heart of the team. Shaun Maloney missed last year’s preparations but will be itching to start this year at the tip of the diamond. Jordi Gomez or Ben Watson should fill that third central midfield role, as much as Fraser Fyvie would love a chance at it. Surprisingly, Jordi has been used in a deeper role in the pre-season exercises and appears to be slightly ahead of Watson in the pecking order at the moment. But Roberto will have to remember who we are facing — the midfield pressing executed so excellently by the Jimmy Macs last season will need to be replicated to obtain a positive result this weekend.
At the back, it remains to be seen if Martinez opts for new signing Ivan Ramis or the excellent, though presumably fatigued Maynor Figueroa, who contributed as one of the over-age players in Honduras’ Olympic squad to keep clean sheets against talented semi-finalists Japan and pre-tournament favourites Spain at left back. Fitness is likely to be the determining factor, with captain Gary Caldwell being withdrawn during international friendly action earlier today (apparently after a shift in the holding midfield role — please leave us a comment if you watched it, with how he did).
Up front, it’s anyone’s guess. I suspect Moses may not be involved from the start just as Charles N’Zogbia wasn’t two seasons ago for not being “in the right frame of mind.” Funny to think that N’Zogbia, a far more polished player, was heading to Villa while Victor Moses, very much still a raw talent, might make the leap to Chelsea a year later.
See Jakarta Jack’s article for thoughts on the fantastic signing of Arouna Koné from Levante. He scored 15 goals in La Liga for Levante, another unfashionable side in one of the top leagues in the world, and has all the attributes to do well for us. But what does it mean for Di Santo, Boselli, and our general tactical shape?
Our guess is that Crusat may well start in place of Moses, with Di Santo up front but the starting XI largely resembles that which ended last season. We would support Martinez in resisting the urge to throw the new signings straight in. Stability and momentum are good. Give the players that achieved the impossible last Spring a chance to keep their places.
A draw would be an excellent start to the season. We shouldn’t kid ourselves — a gulf in quality remains and Chelsea have many match-winners in their side including a rejuvenated Fernando Torres. They are after all, the reigning champions of Europe.
Heart says: 2-1 Latics with a late header from Boselli or Kone.
Mind says: 1-1 Latics rally to equalize after conceding an early Chelsea goal.