Commentary

Quiet summer, Costa controversy cast clouds over Chelsea

As the Premier League kicks off its 26th season of spectacle and spending, is the champion in crisis?

A rather quiet summer on the transfer front, a departure termed by Chelsea manager Antonio Conte as a “great loss,” and the disgruntlement of star-crossed striker Diego Costa have many pundits picking another team -- the wild largesse of Manchester City has earned it the mantle of favorite in many season previews -- instead of the club that earned Conte the league title in his first English campaign.

The Guardian, for example, termed its summer of inactivity as one of “barely explicable stagnation and frustration.” There’s not been much movement, except in the negative sense, since during a preseason trip to Beijing Conte commented on a relatively skimpy squad. Last year, Chelsea avoided major injury concerns and didn’t have the draining obligations of European competition. It also benefitted greatly from the prowess of Costa, who like Didier Drogba before him found ways to score goals during intervals of disjointed attacking play.

Much of the championship team is back, though Conte will need a suitable replacement for Serbian midfielder Nemanja Matic, who quietly but efficiently played off the incredible range of N’Golo Kante and skillful, two-way contributions of Cesc Fabregas to help bridge the no-man’s land between back line and front men.

The sale of Matic to rival Manchester United, now managed by former Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho, for $52 million is clearly a troubling event in Conte’s mind and not a move he seems in agreement with. This was the departure he termed “a gross loss, a great loss.”

His problems are exacerbated more directly by a text sent last June to Costa, telling him he wasn’t in the plans for the 2017-18 season. The text, of course, leaked out, and Costa, predictably, reiterated his desire to play elsewhere. He scored only five of his 20 goals in the second half of the season, so Conte’s concerns can be understood, but it’s hard to imagine that at 28, Costa’s slide from greatness is accelerating.

Yet it’s also likely that club management is tired of Costa’s penchant for cautions and suspensions, and will get a deal done as soon as possible. Conte got good production out of the temperamental striker even if their personalities didn’t mesh.

A proposed move to Atletico Madrid is on hold as the clubs wrangle, and thus Chelsea early in the season will be dependent on newcomer Alvaro Morata, acquired from Real Madrid in a $66-million deal.  Morata scored 31 goals in 95 games for Real, an excellent haul for a 25-year-old, but with Matic gone and both Eden Hazard and Pedro injured, keeping Costa in the mix until his transfer was done would have given Conte a potent option. Instead, Costa is home in Brazil awaiting resolution.

Michy Batshuayi, 23, showed some promise last season while scoring five goals in 20 appearances, but in just one of those games did he start. He also netted four goals in six League Cup and FA Cup games combined, but unless the club can land another goalscorer before the transfer window closes Sept. 1, Chelsea looks a bit short up top.

It also looks somewhat undersupplied in the wide midfield slots -- Conte’s switch to a three-man back line after an embarrassing early-season 3-0 loss to Arsenal triggered a record 13-game Premier League winning streak -- as well as in the playmaker role. Fabregas played sparingly in the first half of the season, and was heavily touted as a January transfer-window departee, but got back on the field in a broader role and finished the season as a vital contributor.

So at least some of the clouds hovering over Stamford Bridge are rather dark and ominous. One of the few summer signings, new French international Tiemoue Bakayoko, will also miss the start of the season because of injury. Another newcomer, German Antonio Ruediger, will add depth and quality to a strong defense that conceded 33 goals, third-fewest in the league.

Perhaps the greatest concern for Chelsea fans is the unhappiness of the manager. The problems with Costa, the departure of Matic, squad limations, and an overall sense that too much is up in the air as the season begins has caused a great sense of unease among the fan base and confidence among skeptics that the two Manchester clubs, Arsenal, and Liverpool have spent more and done more to upgrade for the upcoming season.

The champion is in crisis. What better storyline with which to set sail on a fascinating nine-month adventure?
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