Five questions Chelsea must answer
With the big Premier League kickoff less than a week away, questions remain at Stamford Bridge as manager Jose Mourinho prepares Chelsea for the new season. But there are still a slew of questions to which the Special One must find answers:
Who is Chelsea's No. 1 goalkeeper?
Petr Cech or Thibaut Courtois? The crown prince or the young pretender? The minute Mourinho indicated that Courtois would not be going out on loan, the debate over Chelsea's No. 1 started yet again. Cech, only 32 years of age, has been imperious for Chelsea for more than a decade and is still at the top of his game. Courtois, 10 years his junior, has already proved himself at the highest level, winning La Liga and playing in the Champions League final while on loan at Atletico Madrid and starring for Belgium at the World Cup.
Mourinho has employed both men in preseason, but in Tuesday night's final friendly, which resulted in a 2-0 victory over Spanish side Real Sociedad, it was Courtois who was given the full 90 minutes. At the final whistle, Mourinho would not tell which of the keepers would make his starting XI for the season opener with Burnley.
"The fact Courtois played 90 minutes wasn't me saying he's first choice for Monday," Mourinho said. "It's because he didn't play the last three matches. The players don't know. When will I tell them? On Sunday."
Will Diego Costa replicate his La Liga form in the Premier League?
Having tried and failed to pry Wayne Rooney from Manchester United last year, Mourinho spent much of the past season lamenting the profligacy of his strikers. Atletico Madrid hit man Diego Costa was identified as the man capable of leading Chelsea's line, and £32 million was placed on the table last month to finally secure his services.
Costa has had a fine preseason for the Blues, completing the warm-up phase with a brace of goals Tuesday night against Real Sociedad. After the game, Mourinho was quick to praise the Brazilian-born Spain international.
"Diego is a team player who works hard. He's not just about goals," Mourinho said. "It's about his defensive work, mentality and ambition."
Costa is a perfect fit for Mourinho's template, and as the Portuguese highlighted, even at £32 million, he could turn out to be the Premier League signing of the summer.
"You can consider that [a bargain] because the market is crazy and the values are very high," Mourinho said. "For a striker like him, a champion in Spain, a Champions League finalist, a 25-year-old, we consider the price was very much in our favour."
Like Mourinho, Chelsea supporters have every reason to feel optimistic that Costa will be a net-rippling success in the Premier League.
What is Mourinho's first-choice back four?
Along with the conundrum surrounding the goalkeeping position, questions remain about which players will form Mourinho's first-choice back four. Last season, Gary Cahill and John Terry were his preferred centre-back pairing, with versatile Cesar Azpilicueta played out of position at left back and Branislav Ivanovic holding down the right back role.
The recent £15.8 million acquisition of Atletico Madrid left back Filipe Luis has complicated the equation, and Mourinho has used preseason to try out centre back Kurt Zouma, a £12 million January transfer window signing from Saint Etienne. While Zouma looks like he would benefit from a season on loan to further his experience, there is no doubting the capabilities of Luis, and it's hard to see Mourinho not selecting him in his preferred position, leaving Azpilicueta and Ivanovic challenging each other for the right back berth. Further intrigue is created by the fact that Ivanovic is a more than capable centre back, meaning neither Cahill nor Terry is assured of starting.
It's possible that Mourinho will base his decision on a game-by-game basis, depending on Chelsea's opponent. Time will tell. Right now, as with the goalkeeper slot, the cagey Portuguese is giving nothing away.
Are Chelsea fully equipped to win the Premier League?
Mourinho thinks so, the bookmakers think so, even Blues supporters who err on the side of caution think so. The return from loan of Courtois and acquisition of Cesc Fabregas, Costa and Luis to supplement a squad of world-class players have instilled the belief that Chelsea's time is now.
"At Chelsea, if we didn't think we could win the league or didn't think we had the quality to do it, we wouldn't be here working so hard," Mourinho said recently. "We respect our opponents and their ambitions because they have the same ambitions as us, but we want to win the Premier League and we are ready for that."
Chelsea have been decisive in the transfer market, and Mourinho has already declared that business has been concluded for the summer.
"The market is open, but we are happy with what we have," he said. "We feel we have the squad we want."
Mourinho is rarely satisfied, but this time around the messages coming out of the Stamford Bridge manager's office are positive. Chelsea, it seems, are ready.
Can Mourinho survive another season without silverware?
While 2013-14 will go down in Chelsea annals as a "season of transition," there is no doubt that the Blues had the Premier League title within their grasp. Shock defeats against the likes of Crystal Palace and Sunderland dashed their chances and devalued the home-and-away victories over title rivals Manchester City and Liverpool. In Europe, Chelsea faced further disappointment with a Champions League semifinal exit against Atletico Madrid.
A major trophy in his first season back at Stamford Bridge would have taken the pressure off Mourinho, but with the new campaign about to start and the manager having addressed the perceived deficiencies in his squad, the heavy burden of expectation is greater than ever. The London club's munificent owner, Roman Abramovich, is not known for his patience, but thus far he has allowed Mourinho the time, space and money to fashion a new team capable of winning silverware.
The key signings of Fabregas, Costa and Luis are viewed as pivotal in determining Chelsea's chances and have seen the Blues installed as the favourite to win the Premier League. However, with domestic rivals Manchester City and Manchester United, together with Arsenal and Liverpool, strengthening their hands, competition is fiercer than ever.
On the European stage, Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain have bullied the transfer market as they strive for Champions League glory, while holders Real Madrid have added more Galacticos.
The portents do look good for Mourinho and Chelsea, but nothing is guaranteed. In the same way that the Blues manager is playing his cards close to his chest regarding team selection, so will the London club's inscrutable owner when it comes to deciding Mourinho's future if things don't go according to plan. As witnessed many times before, in the world of Abramovich, failure isn't an option.
Follow Mark Worrall on Twitter @gate17marco.