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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 20 August 2018

Premier League 2018/19: Maurizio Sarri has his hands full as Chelsea enter yet another new era

Chelsea begin new season with plenty of changes, with two people recruited from Napoli central to the club's hopes of success

Maurizio Sarri has plenty to contend with as Chelsea manager but returning to the top four is the ultimate priority. EPA
Maurizio Sarri has plenty to contend with as Chelsea manager but returning to the top four is the ultimate priority. EPA

Even by Chelsea's standards, this has been a summer of discontent: plans for a new £1 billion (Dh4.8bn) stadium have been shelved, the owner's visa has expired, key players explicitly want out, and of course there's been yet another managerial change.

So farcical has this summer been, in fact, that former manager Antonio Conte took charge of the first few days of pre-season despite everyone and his dog knowing the Italian would be fired after two years and two major domestic trophies.

Yet, despite all this, doom and gloom has not exactly engulfed the club. Maurizio Sarri, the sixth Italian to be put in charge, has arrived promising to deliver exciting football, akin to the style demonstrated during his three years at Napoli.

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Based on the noises coming out of the pre-season camp, the players appear to be buying into Sarri's methods, likely relieved with an outlook less regimented than the one preferred by Conte.

Transfer activity has been slow, but Sarri has managed to capture his key target, ensuring an immediate reunion with midfielder Jorginho.

The Italy international, signed from Napoli for a reported £50m on the same day Sarri completed the same switch, will be central to Chelsea's style and success this season.

An accomplished deep-lying playmaker, Jorginho is not only tasked with being Chelsea's chief creative fulcrum, but succeeding where so many others have failed: a central midfielder who swapped Serie A for the Premier League and actually thrived.

At least Chelsea and their supporters can take heart from beating Manchester City to their primary transfer target. If Jorginho was good enough for Pep Guardiola, then perhaps he will deliver on the hype.

While Jorginho is a shoo-in under Sarri, there are plenty of question marks regarding a number of teammates, none more pertinent than Eden Hazard.

Far and away Chelsea's best player, Hazard made clear his plans after Belgium claimed third at the 2018 World Cup to "discover something different", with Real Madrid his "preferred destination".

Hazard's comments were swiftly followed by international and club teammate Thibaut Courtois when the goalkeeper said he, too, was weighing up his Chelsea future.

Both situations need resolving before the start of the season, particularly with the transfer window closing earlier on August 9. Chelsea can ill-afford to lose their No 1 keeper and best player after the deadline, no matter how aggressively Real Madrid pursue the pair.

At present it seems Courtois, who has entered the final 12 months of his contract, is likely to leave, but Chelsea seem intent on retaining Hazard for at least another season. However, as has often proved the case, anything can happen in football.

There is also the future of Willian to contend with. The Brazilian midfielder looked destined for Barcelona only for the Spanish champions to complete the signing of his compatriot Malcom.

Willian's situation at Chelsea has been the subject of renewed speculation after Sarri was left "not happy" when he arrived for pre-season five days late, blaming his expired passport.

Beyond resolving futures, Sarri also has to determine how to maximise the playing staff at his disposal, with the Italian certain to deploy his favoured 4-3-3 formation.

The full-backs select themselves, with Marcos Alonso on the left and Cesar Azpilicueta on the right, but with five senior central defenders on the books, Sarri has a decision to make over his preferred first-choice pairing.

The midfield is even more congested. Jorginho and N'Golo Kante - a World Cup winner with France and arguably the best defensive midfielder on the planet - are automatic picks. That leaves Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Cesc Fabregas, Ross Barkley, Tiemoue Bakayoko, and Danny Drinkwater left to fight over the remaining place.

At present, Chelsea are decently stocked up front, with Alvaro Morata - the club's record signing - likely to lead the line. The talented Spaniard will be looking to build on a debut season that started brightly but ultimately disappointed. He will be ably deputised by Olivier Giroud, who like Kante returns to club duty a world champion.

Belgian Michy Batshuayi, who spent the second half of last season on loan at Borussia Dortmund, is also an option for Sarri, although it wouldn't be a surprise if he made his way out of the club.

It is in the wide positions flanking the central striker where Chelsea appear light. Hazard, Willian and Pedro are all top-level options, but should one or both of Hazard and Willian leave, Sarri will be desperately short of options.

With little movement in the transfer market, it all points to Chelsea giving members of their incredibly successful academy a chance. Winners of five consecutive FA Youth Cups, Chelsea are yet to see a player from the current crop establish themselves in the first team.

Loftus-Cheek leads the way and should really be given his chance this season, while Ethan Ampadu, Charly Musonda, and Callum Hudson-Odoi, who has been so impressive in pre-season, all possess the talent to operate at first-team level.

Sarri is not the first manager to arrive at Chelsea amid turmoil and instability, and he certainly won't be the last. However, for a club that seemingly thrives on chaos, there is a sense of optimism heading into the new season.

The primary objective - to return to the Premier League's top four and regain entry to the Uefa Champions League - is well within reach, particularly if Hazard can be persuaded to stay.

Yet, when it comes to Chelsea and their ability to self-sabotage, it's difficult to predict with any confidence how this season will play out. One thing is for certain, though: with Sarri in charge, it won't be boring.

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