Football

Chelsea slump makes Drogba replacement key

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Torres had an extended Euro 2012 break (©GettyImages)
Torres had an extended Euro 2012 break (©GettyImages).

 One leaky defence, two misfiring strikers and a four-game winless streak was not in Roberto Di Matteo's pre-season script.

The Chelsea boss, appointed on a permanent basis after the greatest job interview of all time, has spent freely this summer, but it remains to be seen whether it was also spent wisely.

For the Blues have had a pre-season to forget. Aside from a 4-2 victory over Seattle Sounders, Di Matteo's side have scratched, scraped and clawed they way through four energy-sapping games, three in America, and one in Brighton, drawing one and losing three.

The draw was a salvage job against Paris St Germain, Lucas Piazon popping up with a last minute equaliser, but defeats to AC Milan, MLS All-Stars and Brighton have ensured preparation for the new season has not been ideal.

Fans may say that pre-season results don't matter, and that it's more about getting 90 minutes in the legs and recovering some of that match sharpness blunted by two months of inactivity. And for the first few games that narrative was believable.

But, after a limp display to Championship side Brighton, Di Matteo broke cover. Results can be excused, performances cannot.

"I was expecting more from my team out there, certainly in terms of their urgency in the game," said the Chelsea boss.

"We needed a bit more movement, too. I was looking for a better performance than the one we gave."

Against Brighton, Di Matteo fielded a full strength side, and found them swatted away by a team that finished mid-table in England's second tier. Fernando Torres, back from an extended Euro 2012 break, was supposed to provide the cutting edge that was sorely lacking from Chelsea's prior pre-season performances. But, worringly for Di Matteo, it was the same old story for Torres.

His forward options - or lack thereof- will surely worry the Chelsea boss. Without Drogba, Chelsea have Torres, Romelu Lukaku, and Danny Sturridge. One £50m former-superstar struggling for form and two young, promising and talented teenagers but both frustratingly inconsistent. Their pre-season form has highlighted this point clearly.

It's difficult to believe Di Matteo will be happy to see the transfer window shut without another striker. Rumours of Hulk, Edinson Cavani and Gonzalo Higuain have swirled for weeks but the transfer gossip has gradually petered out in recent weeks.

Instead, Di Matteo has taken Roman Abramovich's blank chequebook and gone on an attacking midfielder shopping spree. More than £50m spent on Eden Hazard and Brazil star Oscar, plus the capture of Marko Marin, gives Chelsea great options, and a deep, creative bench, but little firepower in the 18-yard-box.

These young starlets are facilitators, they make goals happen, but they aren't going to chip in with 15-20 goals during a Premier League season. Relying on Fernando Torres would have been an excellent plan three years ago, but less wise now.

After the sheer joy of a thoroughly unexpected Champions League triumph, Abramovich has done the right thing. Chelsea's squad was ageing, out of form and written off just six months ago.

The fact they came back into form doesn't take away from the fact that they are still among the oldest in the league, and their fifth placed finish is testament to their consistent inconsistency last season. Cup competitions are one-off knock-outs where anything can happen. An underdog can win a Cup, but it can't win a Premier League title.

Chelsea need the next Lampard, Terry, Cole, Cech and Drogba. Recognising this was the first step, and signing Hazard and Oscar was the next. But if Chelsea want to improve on fifth place - which must be their aim this season - a new striker is a priority. Drogba was too integral to the last team to think his absence can be dealt with without a replacement.

This is one of the main takeaways from their pre-season. At the moment, Di Matteo is forced to wrestle with that horrible combination - a leaky defence, and a profligate strikeforce.

In five games, they've conceded 10 and scored eight. Until this weekend, Romelu Lukaku was left to lead to line by himself - Torres on holiday and Sturridge with Team GB - and despite a bright start, the Belgian striker is still too raw to head a Premier League title challenger - he's goalless in his last 4 games.

There's plenty of reasons to be optimistic at Stamford Bridge this season, but the pre-season wobbles have underlined a potentially fatal flaw.

For all the magic in the middle, Di Matteo has issues at both ends of the pitch. Problems in pre-season are no cause for panic, but they will still need to be addressed. Defensively, Chelsea have the players to sort the problems internally, but in the final third, it's difficult to believe Torres, Sturridge and Lukaku could fire the Blues to the Premier League.

Next Sunday, the Blues take on Manchester City in the Community Shield. Roberto Mancini's men have picked up from where they left on last season, and look a good bet to retain their title.

Chelsea have put themselves much closer to City, but work remains to be done. In a week's time we'll have a much better idea of where the two teams are at, and how far Chelsea have bridged the gap to the Premier League champions.

And then a week after that, the season begins. Not much time, and Di Matteo will need a fast start to ward off the spectre of Pep Guardiola.

A striker is the key. Torres may not have responded well the the competition provided by Didier Drogba, but the Spaniard cannot be Chelsea's sole goal threat.

United have Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck, and Javier Hernandez, Arsenal Olivier Giroud, Lukas Podolski, Theo Walcott and Robin van Persie, while City boast Carlos Tevez, Mario Balotelli, and Sergio Aguero. Even Liverpool have Andy Carroll, Fabio Borini and Luis Suarez.

For all the midfield creativity is only useful if you have the players to stick the chances away. With their current squad, a third or fourth place finish is achievable.

With a new striker, a title challenge is well and truly on the cards.

Topics:
Football
Chelsea
Premier League
Fernando Torres
Roberto Di Matteo
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