x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

A Catalan style pervades Chelsea

As highlighted in a brilliantly incisive opening five minutes at Wigan on Sunday, Chelsea could become the entertainers Roman Abramovich has always demanded, writes John McAuley.

Oscar, left, impressed on his debut. Chris Brunskill / Getty Images
Oscar, left, impressed on his debut. Chris Brunskill / Getty Images

That Roman Abramovich, Chelsea's oligarch owner, retains an obsession with Barcelona is well documented. Envious glances were initially cast towards Nou Camp when Ronaldinho inspired Frank Rijkaard's men to the Champions League crown in 2006, vanquishing Chelsea en route to the final.

Coveting transformed to craving during the Pep Guardiola era, so much so that Abramovich delayed offering Roberto di Matteo a contract in June despite the Italian coach delivering, finally, the Champions League trophy his employer had long desired.

Guardiola, having vacated his position at Barcelona following four formidable yet energy-sapping seasons, could not be convinced to cancel a planned sabbatical for a role at Stamford Bridge. Di Matteo's deal has a lifespan of only two years, suggesting strongly a revitalised Guardiola will find his next project in West London.

Abramovich remains captivated by the Catalan's style. Barcelona's success did not just bring titles, it attracted comparisons with the best sides from football's past; many eulogised, even, that Lionel Messi and his band of diminutive brothers stood tall above the rest.

Abramovich, not content with a surfeit of trophies gleaned from his nine-year reign, wants his Chelsea side, ideally guided by Guardiola, to occupy the same breath as the Spanish giants.

This summer he seems to have built towards that. The Russian spent considerably, an expensive shopping list headed by Eden Hazard, Europe's most desirable footballer last season. The signings of Oscar, the promising Brazilian playmaker from Internacional, and Marko Marin, Werder Bremen's nimble attacker, along with last year's acquisition of Juan Mata from Valencia, represent a seismic shift in transfer policy.

Chelsea's prosperity under Abramovich was borne from a powerful footballing machine, robust and ruthless. Yet vital cogs in Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka have been discarded, Michael Essien relegated to, at best, a substitute's role.

As highlighted in a brilliantly incisive opening five minutes at Wigan Athletic on Sunday, Chelsea could become the entertainers Abramovich has always demanded. With crafty creators Mata, Hazard, Oscar and Marin vying for places behind Fernando Torres, Chelsea now have a distinctly Barcelona feel.

Guardiola, stationed in his new New York base, will be watching with great interest events unfold at the Bridge this season. It promises to make compelling viewing, as Chelsea seem set to at last provide Abramovich with the style to complement the substance.


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