The biggest thing recommending the upcoming season, from a Chelsea supporter's point of view, is that it's not the previous one. Over the past two seasons, the Blues have been knocked off their 'definitely challenging for the title' perch and into the worrying rapids of the top-four race, and last year in particular there were fewer highs to make up for the lows.
Off the field was just as problematic. The continued presence of Fernando Torres divided (still divides) opinion, turning factions of Chelsea fans into mortal enemies. The injection of Rafael Benitez and the sacking of Roberto di Matteo made thinking about the team -- let alone writing about it -- thoroughly unpleasant. At least some of the players were interesting. Fortunately, all the fun ones have been retained.
Not-being-last-year, then, is a good reason to embrace this season. So let's stop dwelling on the horror that was and look into our bright and shiny future.
The core of Chelsea's team from last season remains intact. Thanks to Frank Lampard's one-year contract extension, there have been no major losses from last year's squad, although a fair few bit-part players have been sent packing. That means we have an interesting team on our hands, headlined by the deadly duo of Juan Mata and Eden Hazard. While Chelsea teams past have used sheer physical power as their calling card, the new Blues are silky smooth and perhaps even more dangerous on the attack.
We know the names -- David Luiz, Petr Cech, Ashley Cole, Branislav Ivanovic etc.. Their strengths and weaknesses have been discussed in detail, both here and elsewhere (and if you want to study them in more depth, I recommend the Plains of Almeria season preview, a bargain at £0.99). We know what, broadly speaking, didn't work last year. Fortunately, we've kept the good, and done some reinforcing where we needed help.
Chelsea have been fairly quiet in the transfer market, picking up Mark Schwarzer on a free and adding Andre Schurrle and Marco van Ginkel without much in the way of fanfare. If the Blues fail to land Wayne Rooney from Manchester United (and the Samuel Eto'o talk turns out to just be talk), the squad doesn't look to have been particularly heavily reinforced, even if both Schurrle and van Ginkel are very good young players.
But that's forgetting the first flowering of the loan movement. Tomas Kalas isn't likely to be a difference-maker this season, but the recall of one of the Premier League's top strikers in Romelu Lukaku and another brilliant creative force in Kevin de Bruyne means that Chelsea have managed to add significantly to their squad without paying any new money. Lukaku in particular could be an answer to our issues up top. Michael Essien, of course, is making his return to the team as well, providing solid help in the midfield. We've certainly needed it.
The Once and Present King
The biggest difference between this year and last, of course, is the return of Jose Mourinho after five years in exile. Not only is the Special One an elite coach, with two Champions League crowns and league titles in four different countries under his belt, he's also a Chelsea talisman, and it's difficult not to get swept up in the emotions that surround his return.
The good feeling matters -- Stamford Bridge will be much happier this season, assuming the results are at least reasonably positive -- but Mourinho's enormous talents as a manager are more important. His long line of silverware is proof enough that he knows what he's doing; the displays on the pitch, even in preseason, are further illustrative of his expertise. Chelsea have been assembling a superb squad recently, and now they have a world-class manager to match.
We've seen big shake-ups at the top of the table. Both Manchester clubs have replaced their managers, with Sir Alex Ferguson retiring after 27 years of tormenting the Premier League and Roberto Mancini getting the boot after four years of annoying his superiors. While Manchester City have almost certainly upgraded in acquiring Manuel Pellegrini, there was no hope of United finding anyone better than Ferguson to head their team. David Moyes is hardly a man to make anyone quake in their boots.
While discounting United in the title race has always been foolish, it certainly seems as though their cross-town rivals are the team to worry about. City under-performed last season, and have added significantly to their squad this summer. It would be no surprise to see them cast off last year's lethargy, and I'd expect David Silva and Sergio Aguero in particular to shine in the upcoming campaign.
I don't consider United as close. They're a flawed squad, although they have some obviously elite talents (most notably Robin van Persie). If they can't secure at least a pair of world-class midfielders, it's difficult to see how they'll manage to get on without Ferguson's pixie-dust. Chelsea have already tried to take advantage of their lack of stability this summer by making an approach for Wayne Rooney, and considering the ineptitude with which they've attempted to fend off that attack, it does look like United are, for the first time in years, ripe for the taking.
It's hardly title-or-bust for Chelsea at the moment. As Mourinho himself has said, we're a young squad with our best years ahead of us, and we have at least one very strong competitor in Manchester City to overcome to earn our first win in four years. But at the very least the club must mount a credible challenge. Flirting with the likes of Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal for most of the season should be completely unacceptable, even if most would be content with a second place finish.
Elsewhere, the squad is now deep enough for deep runs in every other competition. Jose Mourinho's always going to treat the Champions League seriously, and he's only failed to make the semifinals twice since the 2003/04 season. The League Cup and FA Cup both look eminently winnable as well.