The ultimate Chelsea season preview: Tuchel's still at the wheel but can Sterling carry title challenge?

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Raheem Sterling Chelsea 2022-23Getty Images

Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel declared himself ready, willing and able to drive some of his players to matches in a seven-seater – that's how grave the situation was as Stamford Bridge just a few months ago.

No top European club had a more tumultuous 2021-22 campaign than the Blues. Not even Barcelona!

The financial chaos caused by Roman Abramovich's removal as owner meant that there was a very real fear that the club might go under.

Chelsea survived, of course, and despite the colossal off-field distraction, Tuchel still managed to secure a third-place finish, thus securing Champions League football for another season.

Of course, for all of the problems created by Abramovich's enforced sale of the club because of his ties to the Kremlin, Tuchel remained in possession of a stellar squad.

Indeed, just a couple of months before Stamford Bridge was thrown into turmoil by sanctions imposed upon Abramovich after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Chelsea had followed up their UEFA Super Cup success at the start of the season by winning the Club World Cup for the first time in their history.

The Blues could have easily added another couple of trophies, too, but they were beaten on penalties by Liverpool in both the final of the Carabao Cup and the FA Cup.

Some key players have since departed but Chelsea's new owners, a consortium led by Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital, have been extremely active in the transfer market this summer.

Optimism, then, has returned to west London, particularly as it seems that more new players will arrive before the close of the transfer window...

  • Kalidou Koulibaly Chelsea 2022.Getty Images.

    Squad Goals

    An irate Tuchel admitted after the 4-0 friendly loss to Arsenal a fortnight ago that he wasn't sure if Chelsea would be ready for the start of the new Premier League season.

    The German was primarily concerned with both the fitness and attitude of his players but it's also clear that he's still not entirely happy with the make-up of his squad.

    Raheem Sterling is a potentially sensational signing, while Kalidou Koulibaly should help fill the considerable void left by Antonio Rudiger in defence.

    Marc Cucurella is something of a strange signing, given the size of the fee (£62 million!) and Ben Chilwell's return to full fitness, but Chelsea deserve enormous credit for having hoovered up two of the most exciting young players knocking about in English football, Jamaica international Omari Hutchinson, who has been prised away from London rivals Arsenal, and Carney Chukwuemeka, the Aston Villa sensation that was also being courted by the likes of Barcelona.

    However, the Blaugrana have beaten the Blues to two transfer targets this summer: Raphinha and Jules Kounde. The good news is that Chelsea have managed to hold on to Cesar Azpilicueta, who was also set to move to Camp Nou, but there is a feeling that Chelsea are still short on quality in midfield and, in particular, up front.

  • Sterling(C)Getty Images

    The Hopes

    Sterling is the new owners' statement signing. It feels like the winger has been around for ever but he's still only 27, meaning his peak years are, in theory at least, still ahead of whim.

    Tuchel firmly believes that Sterling will get back to his very best form, after an underwhelming final year at Manchester City.

    The hope will also be that Sterling's arrival, coupled with Romelu Lukaku's exit, will provide the support and space that Kai Havertz clearly requires to deliver on a far more consistent basis.

    As a more natural no.9, Armando Broja could also have a bigger role to play than expected if he ends up staying at Stamford Bridge beyond the close of the transfer window.

    Elsewhere, with Chilwell back in action, Tuchel will not be stuck for options on the left-hand side even if Marcos Alonso leaves, and it would be a huge boost for Chelsea if N'Golo Kante overcomes the nagging injuries which have begun to take their toll on the previously indefatigable Frenchman.

    The returning Conor Gallagher could also inject some real dynamism into the midfield on the back of his excellent loan spell at Crystal Palace.

  • Timo Werner Chelsea pre-season 2022Getty Images

    The Fears

    As it stands, do Chelsea look significantly stronger up front than last season? Because they'll need to be if there to have any chance of competing with Manchester City and Liverpool for top spot.

    Their title campaign fizzled out last year primarily because of a lack of a cutting edge. Lukaku, of course, had been meant to resolve that issue, which was even obvious during their 2020-21 Champions League triumph, but his signing proved a self-inflicted disaster.

    Sterling obviously has it in him to score 20-30 goals in all competitions - we've seen him do it at City, just not for a while.

    Evidently, Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech would both welcome a transfer before deadline day, Christian Pulisic can't seem to stay fit, Callum Hudson-Odoi's career has stalled and while Havertz is clearly a man for the big occasion, he has yet to prove he can score regularly enough in England to sustain a title challenge.

  • Raheem Sterling Chelsea 2022-23Getty Images

    The Hero

    It simply has to be Sterling. The fee is not astronomical. If anything, £47.5m ($57m) should prove a bargain for an England international who lit up Euro 2020.

    However, Sterling can't just be good; he needs to be great if Chelsea's season is to be a success.

    His quality is certainly not in doubt. There was simply a feeling that things had gone a little flat for him at City. It's easy to understand why a move to Chelsea "intrigued" him, as he put it.

    Joining Tuchel's team offers him a guaranteed starting spot – which is never a given at the Etihad – as well as the chance to prove Pep Guardiola wrong for repeatedly benching him last season, before then agreeing to let him leave.

    If the transfer reinvigorates Sterling, he will quickly become an idol at a ground where he was once racially abused by a home fan.

  • Jürgen Klopp Pep Guardiola 2022Getty

    The Villain

    Take your pick: Pep Guardiola or Jurgen Klopp? They're essentially the two men standing between Chelsea and a first title since 2017.

    Tuchel enjoyed a fine run of results against Guardiola after renewing his rivalry with his former Bundesliga adversary in England, culminating in that famous Champions League triumph in Porto in May 2021.

    However, City beat Chelsea 1-0 both home and away last season, and more comfortably than the scoreline suggests.

    Chelsea did prove a match for Liverpool, drawing all four of their meetings, but it was Klopp who ended up lifting two trophies while Tuchel was left consoling his players after back-to-back shootout defeats at Wembley.

    The feeling remains, then, that Chelsea are still lacking something in comparison to their main title rivals, and that even if they overtake one, they won't get past the other.

  • Christian Pulisic Chelsea 2022-23Getty

    Last-chance Saloon

    There are quite a few players who appear to be approaching the end of their Chelsea careers. It would not be a surprise at all to see the likes of Ziyech, Werner and Hudson-Odoi all depart before the window closes.

    Pulisic is expected to stay put and understandably so, given he remains a potential superstar.

    But the fact of the matter is that the acquisition of Sterling means that Pulisic's first-team prospects have diminished.

    If Tuchel persists with three up front, it's presently hard to see him a spot for the American in Chelsea's starting line-up, with Sterling likely to be joined in attack by Mason Mount and Kai Havertz.

    Spending the majority of the next few months warming the bench at the Bridge is hardly an ideal scenario for a £58m ($70m) signing who will be hoping to be fully fit and firing for his country's World Cup campaign in November.

    Pulisic simply has to stay healthy this season to give himself any chance of forcing his way into Tuchel's team.

  • Thomas Tuchel FC ChelseaGetty Images

    How Are The Fans Feeling?

    Eager to move on from last season's uncertainty. There is obviously widespread relief that Chelsea have come out of the other side of such dramatic upheaval and are not only still operating, but also making a splash in the transfer market. Things really could have gone in a very different direction, so the fans are just happy to be able to focus on the football again.

    There is obviously some optimism that they might actually mount a title tilt if a goalscorer or quality midfielder were to arrive in the coming weeks. And that's primarily down to the continued presence of Tuchel.

    The supporters had fallen in love with him long before the Abramovich era finally unravelled but he cemented his legendary status with the dignified and masterful manner in which he handled last season's turmoil.

    He would have been forgiven for walking away from such a mess and, let's not forget, there was talk of him taking over at Manchester United.

    So, while doubts remain over the strength of Chelsea's squad, the fans are rightly thrilled that Tuchel is still at the wheel. And thankfully not literally.