Roberto Di Matteo is not prone to offering insights into his probable starting lineup but, for once, any reluctance to divulge his selection against Reading owed less to an instinctive desire for secrecy and more to a sheer embarrassment of riches. A clutch of creative midfielders sought to impress in training at Cobham on Tuesday in the hope of starting on Wednesday night. Chelsea have options aplenty, leaving the manager with much to ponder.
Of all the summer's senior recruits charged with bringing a touch of fantasy to this team's approach, only the hamstrung Marko Marin is unavailable. Eden Hazard, a £32m signing, was impressive at Wigan on Sunday and will aspire to make similar waves on his home debut. The £20m Oscar, Brazil's No10 elect, will be hoping for more than another cameo after offering a tantalising glimpse of his talent at the DW Stadium. His compatriot Ramires has recovered from illness, and last season's player of the year, Juan Mata, will hardly want to slip down the pecking order at Stamford Bridge by seeking a breather on the bench.
All will hope to be involved against the promoted Royals and, given that Oscar had spent barely 72 hours at his new club ahead of the game at Wigan, this effectively represents the first occasion when Di Matteo has had to conjure a combination from this flurry of free spirits. At some stage, when this squad is settled and its personnel fit and fresh, the manager will consider a trio of Hazard, Oscar and Mata operating as a fluid attacking combination behind Fernando Torres.
That prospect is mouth-watering. "Good players can always play together," Di Matteo said. "That's what I've always believed, but we'll need time to work together and get to know each other a bit better. The team setup for this game is something I need to think about."
That trio would not offer much width, for all that Hazard and Mata have operated as wingers eager to veer infield, but would still invite crisp, passing exchanges through the middle, maybe with Ramires anchoring – perhaps against his own better instincts – and Frank Lampard monitoring, waiting to maraud from a deeper berth.
There was evidence at Wigan that Hazard and Mata have tapped into each other's wavelengths, the pair swapping positions at will and covering each other's movement, their sharp rat-a-tats slickly bypassing home players. It was Hazard who made the greatest impression, withstanding rugged challenges to create Chelsea's two goals in the opening seven minutes and suggesting his stay in England should be productive.
"It was great to see him enjoying himself and getting his teeth into the Premier League," Di Matteo said. "You're never quite sure how new players will adapt. It's still quite a big change from France to England … It's a big change coming to England from anywhere, and it will take him a bit of time to get used to the physicality and tempo of the division, but it was a good start. He's a talented man … sorry, a talented young boy. He's strongly built and he'll get used to the challenges – he was targeted at Wigan, if not in a malicious way – but he knows how to handle himself. He'll be fine. He's got enough qualities to be able to get away from people. We'll have to see how he grows into a man, and how quickly he will become an important player for Chelsea."
Already, and probably unfairly, comparisons are being drawn with Gianfranco Zola, the man fans consider the club's greatest modern-day performer. "People will look at their similar size," Di Matteo said when considering his former team-mate. "Gianfranco was a wonderful talent, an artist. Eden might become an artist as well. We know he has the dribbling ability and the technique. But, after one game, it's probably a bit too early to say."
Even so, teams who prioritise nullifying the Belgian will find others pouring into the space left behind. Oscar's burst away from Iván Ramis, scorching beyond the Spaniard in virtually his first involvement, served notice of his considerable qualities. Di Matteo will be tempted to offer the young Brazilian a start on Wednesday, particularly having acknowledged that Mata will benefit from a rest. The Spaniard is risking burn-out having extended a debut campaign at Stamford Bridge into Euro 2012 and the London Olympics, and has already spoken to the Spanish Football Federation over the possibility of sitting out next month's international fixtures, against Saudi Arabia and Georgia. There remains the possibility that he will miss the European Super Cup final against Atlético Madrid in Monaco, a week on Friday. A midweek substitute's role, with Ramires restored to the right of the attacking midfield trio and Oscar offered a start, might ease his immediate work-load.
Not that Reading will feel Chelsea are resting players. There is too much newfound depth in quality in that creative sector of their squad to prompt concern, and the London side are hoping to take advantage of seeing this game – originally scheduled for the weekend of the Super Cup– brought forward.
Di Matteo was asked the last time Chelsea sat on top of the Premier League and, immediately, snapped back: "It was in November 2010." That has been playing on people's minds virtually ever since and, even this early in the campaign, the chance to eke out an advantage must be taken. Hazard, Oscar, Mata et al hope to do just that.
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image: © Jason Bagley