On Saturday, I had the opportunity to see Antonio’s Conte’s first game in charge of Chelsea.
I say game, it being the first pre-season friendly, the match with Rapid Vienna was little more than a glorified training exercise, with various players wheezing their way around the pitch at the brand new Allianz Stadion, trying to shake off the ring rust that still affects footballers after a few weeks off, even in this age of the super fit athlete.
Drawing conclusions from these types of non-events can be tricky. Certainly Conte won’t be too disappointed with the 2-0 defeat. With much of the squad enjoying an extended summer break, Conte took the opportunity to run the rule over some of Chelsea’s fringe players, a couple of whom will believe they can force their way into the new manager’s thinking. Here we assess four players who could find themselves involved with the Blues first team next season.
Victor Moses is now 25 years old and as such is at a crucial stage of his career, which has stalled in recent seasons. He joined Chelsea way back in 2012 after impressing against the Blues for Wigan. After a reasonably successful 2012/13 campaign, where Moses featured regularly under both Roberto Di Matteo and Rafael Benitez, there followed three seasons of unmemorable loan spells, taking in Liverpool, Stoke City and, latterly, West Ham United. Before joining the Hammers for last season, Moses was arguably Chelsea’s standout performer in the now notoriously troubled pre-season preparations which preceded the team’s lousy title defence. On Saturday, Moses was again Chelsea’s stand out performer. One gets the impression that he could be the sort of player who will thrive under Conte. A tireless worker with pace to spare, Moses may well find himself used as a regular impact sub by Chelsea this season. Certainly that would be more palatable than another loan spell.
It looked as though teenage academy prospect Ola Aina would be on his way out of Chelsea this summer after initially turning down the club’s offer of a new contract. Aina, who came on at left back at halftime on Saturday but who can operate anywhere across the back four, had, it was said, grown tired at the lack of first team opportunities afforded him by Jose Mourinho and Guus Hiddink. Whether he was given assurances that he would be involved this season remains to be seen but something changed the England youth international‘s thinking and he recently signed a new four year contract. Full back is an obvious area for improvement for Chelsea, and having let Ryan Bertrand go a couple of years ago, the club will be reluctant to see another young English prospect flourish elsewhere. Aina won’t play every week next season but he should at least finally make his senior Chelsea debut.
Speaking of which, that’s a target that Nathaniel Chalobah must be have thought would never be achieved. Chalobah has long been talked of as player with the potential to make the step up from academy to Chelsea first teamer but he’s another who has been the victim of too many loan spells. After a successful season at Watford in 2012/13, Chalobah has since been loaned out to Nottingham Forest, Middlesbrough, Burnley and, somewhat bizarrely, Napoli. He made just two starts in Serie A last season but featured more regularly in the Europa League. One imagines Antonio Conte would have had a glimpse of Chalobah in Italy last term, if not he would have been impressed by the England under 21 international’s 25 minute cameo appearance on Saturday. The arrival of N’Golo Kante means Chelsea are well stocked for defensive midfielders but if, as expected, one of John Mikel Obi or Nemanja Matic departs before the Premier League campaign gets underway, Chalobah could find himself as Kante’s cover. Not ideal perhaps but a vast improvement on another loan spell to a mid-table Championship side
The Juan Cuadrado Chelsea supporters glimpsed towards the end of the 2015 title winning campaign is not the same player who impressed for Juventus last season and for Colombia in this summer’s Copa America. Cuadrado joined Chelsea for more than twenty million pounds in February 2015 but in his 13 games for the Blues he often looked like a man who’d had his boot laces tied together. Maybe it was the pressure of trying to impact a team on their way to a title or just the demands of Jose Mourinho which saw Cuadrado nervously bumble his way around the Premier League, but from the sounds of things, Antonio Conte is intent on giving him another chance to impress. Speaking after Saturday’s game, Conte said:
“I wanted him when I was Juventus coach. He will come back very soon and train and play with us. Now, he’s a Chelsea player and he’ll stay with us.”
That will be a handy boost to Cuadrado’s confidence. Whether he actually wants to play in England is a different matter but it looks as though he’s going to get the opportunity to prove himself once more.
There’s been much talk of Chelsea’s first team squad needing a radical overhaul, maybe the answers to the questions posed to Conte lie within the depths of his current talent pool.