On Sunday, the rapturous applause that greeted Jose Mourinho as he emerged from the tunnel and strolled to the technical area enhanced the carnival atmosphere that had been bubbling away in and around Stamford Bridge all afternoon. The Special One was back in his dugout, in his stadium with his people.
The feeling of unity inside the Bridge was redolent of the past -- it reminded me of the corresponding weekend in August 2006. Back then, Chelsea were embarking on a campaign at the end of which it was hoped the Premier League title would be secured for a third consecutive season. The Blues were indomitable and Stamford Bridge a veritable fortress.
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Manchester City were the visitors on that occasion -- not the newly moneyed, superstar-toting City that we know today, but a pedestrian outfit short of ideas and lacking class. Chelsea strolled to a 3-0 victory with goals from John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba, and the crowd revelled in the thrill of it all. "That's why we're champions" was the popular chant of the day -- now the fans hope to sing that song again.
Seven years later, it felt like nothing had changed. Well, almost. The Tigers of Hull were duly tamed; never once did they roar -- just a few meows now and again as Chelsea's lions pawed them into submission. John Terry still there marshalling the back four, and Frank Lampard, holding the midfield these days, rippling the Hull City net with a 30-yard scorcher of a free kick.
There was a definite better-the-devils-you-know element to the Blues side Mourinho sent out to joust at his second coming. Petr Cech under the bar, Ashley Cole, Terry and Lampard. Mourinho played it safe, using the experienced heads available to him to ensure his counterpart, Steve Bruce, didn't spoil the party -- but with the glittering baubles available to him in midfield, that was never going to happen. Once the diamond that is Oscar sparkling in the late-afternoon sunshine had given Chelsea the lead, those sat around me relaxed, the memory of Lampard's earlier penalty miss already a distant memory. Now it was just a question of how many, surely.
Surely not. Blues fans had heaved a collective sigh of frustration when the team was announced. Rolling out a 4-2-3-1 -- the expectation had been that the man up top would be Romelu Lukaku, but the reality was Fernando Torres -- and the gamblers and fantasy football managers who had backed the Belgian, hoping Mourinho would put his faith in the young striker, looked up at the heavens and shook their heads in dismay.
Going back to that game with City in 2006, a certain Andriy Shevchenko had made his Premier League debut for the Blues. Roman Abramovich had dug deep into his wallet to bring the Ukrainian striker to Stamford Bridge, but his then-record signing flattered to deceive and Shevchenko’s career at the Bridge sputtered and stuttered and simply fizzled out. Despite this, never once did the match-going Chelsea congregation get on the player's back -- and so it is with the enigmatic Torres.
Like Shevchenko before him, Torres came with a record-breaking price tag -- and as with Sheva, the Spaniard has shown only an occasional flash of form -- but nowhere near enough to justify his exorbitant transfer fee or a guaranteed start. You could almost imagine the discussion between Mr. Abramovich and Mr. Mourinho.
"Jose, I've paid a lot of money for Torres, I'll try and buy Wayne Rooney for you, but in the meantime, see what you can do with him."
"Yes, boss. I'll play Nando against Hull City. If he can't do it against them, he never will."
There were times in the game against Hull when Torres was as much a spectator as the rest of us. Except that whilst we were enthralled and delighted by the wizardry and trickery of Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard, as the game evolved, the body language of Torres, whom I watched off the ball, was that of a man ill at ease with his circumstances.
At the outset Torres had started brightly, winning the penalty chance that Lampard squandered, but by the 75th minute, when Mourinho decided enough was enough, the Blues No.9 resembled an anonymous bystander, eventually trotting off, head bowed to polite applause -- replaced by Romelu Lukaku. At 2-0, Chelsea were already home and hosed, but at the final whistle many wondered if the margin of victory could have been far greater had Lukaku been given the same amount of game time as Torres.
Paul Lambert brings his exciting young Aston Villa side to Stamford Bridge on Wednesday for what promises to be a challenging and exciting encounter. Villa stunned Arsenal with a 3-1 win at the Emirates on Saturday, when a certain young Belgian striker by the name of Christian Benteke bagged a brace.
It is interesting that last season Lambert wasted no time in integrating Benteke into the Villa first team -- at the expense of club-record signing Darren Bent. The results were explosive, with Benteke bagging 21 goals in 35 games. During the summer, the big-money clubs circled Villa Park like vultures, and the youngster duly handed in a transfer request. Refreshingly, though, Lambert persuaded his main man to stay, and it was instead Bent who departed in a loan deal to Fulham.
Benteke will lead the Villa line against Chelsea, without questions, and the Stamford Bridge faithful will be hoping that it is his countryman Lukaku who is facing him across the halfway line when the referee blows his whistle to get proceedings underway.
With the deal to bring Rooney to Stamford Bridge floundering, and nobody else of note on the horizon, Mourinho needs to swiftly examine his central striking options to ensure that the Blues maximize the industry, flair and creativity of the rest of the team. With one eye on the forthcoming away game against champions Manchester United, we will learn against Villa how the Special One chooses to bridge the monumental gap that has remained since the departure of Didier Drogba.
As ever, Chelsea is a work in progress, but if there are to be no further additions to the squad, Mourinho will have to make do with what he has. With the 2013-14 campaign off to a promising start, it will be critical to keep the momentum going. New season, same old question. Interesting times ahead.