While our brave CanaBundWenglish lad Owen Hargreaves pleads for release from Munich to Manchester, and as the Ashley Cole-leaves-and-William-Gallas-arrives story at
Highbury Sold-to-the-Highest-Bidder Stadium drags on, the most intrigue in England's drama-starved Premiership still revolves around how Chelsea goes this season.
Abramovich's billions have given him the best team in England (again) and perhaps the best in all of Europe (again) -- the world, at least in pro footy terms. But this is a paper-'n-pixels kind of best, and even with a supposed change of direction in the team this season, a gaggle of blue-ribbon youngsters brought in to carry the bags of the likes of Shevchenko and Ballack, nothing less than a Champions League title that was denied by Barcelona last time around will vindicate the approach, with the total payroll at a zillion quid.
They're back at it today, against Middlesbrough, and perhaps Michael Ballack will debut and start earning his 120,000 pounds a week salary. Or maybe not. John Terry might skip it as well.
Watching their opening 3-0 win over Man City on Sunday, the announcers could barely contain themselves regarding the depth of this Chelsea aggregation. They focussed as on the players in mufti behind the bench -- Ballack, Makelele, Geremi, Cech et al -- as they did on poor, overmatched City, and barfingly gushed about how good this team could be when all hands are on deck.
Well, perhaps not. Michael Essien was Sunday's best player, and undoubtedly one of the world's best midfielders. Yet, if/when Ballack does appear, Essien goes back to the bench -- Ballack will be expected to mesh with Frank Lampard, both of them offensive midfielders, and Makelele takes over as the backstopping midfielder.
And how happy are the likes of Essien going to be with spot duty? It's the eternal question, and not at all a new development in Chelsea's Abramovich era. Now Arsene Wenger, who spends winters playing the continental Monsieur to Mourinho's Dr. Evil, has enticed William Gallas, a World Cup runner-up banished to the Chelsea reserves, with a starting XI spot to ease the sting of a pay cut, in a deal that could finally bring Ashley Cole to Stamford Bridge. Which would send Wayne Bridge, who teamed up so well with Arjen Robben on the left side on Sunday, back to the bench -- and whither Robben when Joe Cole returns from injury?
Norman Hubbard put the fundamental best in this recent Soccernet piece:
There is a dilemma that confronts players at elite clubs; however well remunerated, sitting on the bench is a poor substitute for first-team football. Abramovich can fund the most extravagant of salaries, but not the intangibles; the memories, the sense of belonging and purpose, the thrill of making a decisive contribution. In short, the experience of being a footballer.
I doubt Chelsea will do anything but win the English Premier League this season, and go deep in the Champions League. But they also provide a litmus test for this latest instalment of the Abramovich/Mourinho approach. Sometimes, the best team money can buy isn't the best team.