The season could be about to unravel at Chelsea. The Premier League champions were dumped out of the EFL Cup in January and have suffered heavy defeats to Bournemouth and Watford in recent weeks, leading to speculation over the future of manager Antonio Conte.
With the Champions League back on our TV screens, the Blues must now face Barcelona twice and both Manchester clubs in the space of a month, which will be a defining period in their campaign. It is feared Chelsea will fall out of the top four and be eliminated from the Champions League before the quarterfinals, which just isn’t good enough for a club of their stature.
But could The Blues do the unthinkable and win the Champions League once again? The club thrives when their backs are up against the wall, and we at RealSport look as to why this will be their year.
Here we go again…
Cast your minds back to 2012. Chelsea were on course to a sixth-placed finish in the Premier League and were 3-1 down to Napoli after the away leg in the Champions League last 16. Andre Villas-Boas was subsequently relieved of his duties, with then assistant manager and club legend Roberto Di Matteo taking the reins on an interim basis.
The little Italian galvanised the side as they turned their 3-1 deficit into a 5-4 aggregate win, before defeating Benfica, Barcelona and Bayern Munich en route to lifting the Champions League trophy.
With discomfort around Stamford Bridge, there is a sense of déjà vu in West London and it could happen all over again this year. Yes, Chelsea were very fortunate in that run, with a smash and grab job in the Camp Nou and Petr Cech & Didier Drogba heroics in the final, but who’s to say the current squad can’t produce performances of that ilk once again?
This may hinge on whether Chelsea keep hold of current manager Antonio Conte, but with no obvious replacement to step in, expect the Italian to see out the remainder of the season. The former Juventus manager got the best out of an under-par Italy side at Euro 2016, defeating defending champions Spain and then only going down to World Champions Germany on penalties. Can he rejuvenate this Chelsea side for the knockout stages?
Barcelona’s banana skin
The route for Chelsea in the knockout stages all starts with Barcelona. The Catalans have lost just once since the Spanish Supercup back in August, a 1-0 defeat to local rivals to Espanyol in the Copa del Rey which they overturned in the second leg. All signs point towards a relatively comfortable Barcelona win over Chelsea, but history does favours the Londoners.
Since the Roman Abramovich era began at Chelsea, Chelsea and Barcelona have locked horns in the Champions League five times over two-legs. Chelsea have achieved an aggregate victory on three occasions, with the two losses coming in unfortunate circumstances. In 2006, Chelsea faced an uphill battle after Asier Del Horno picked up a red card in the first leg, and Barca went through on away goals in 2009 due to some questionable officiating at Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea’s most memorable victory against Barca came in 2012, the last time the two sides faced off. With the teams locked at 1-1 on aggregate during the semifinal second leg, a John Terry red card looked to have dumped The Blues out of the competition. Andres Iniesta swiftly made things 2-1 to the Spaniards, but a moment of magic from Ramires gave Chelsea a lifeline. Di Matteo’s side saw out the final 45 minutes to go through to the final, and there was even time for Fernando Torres to rub salt in Catalan wounds, rolling the ball into an empty net in the 92nd minute.
Add this psychological advantage to the fact that Lionel Messi has never scored against Chelsea, and Conte’s men can start to believe they can do over the La Liga giants once again.
You can’t put a price on experience
Chelsea’s incredible 2012 success was built upon strong leaders in the side. Petr Cech, John Terry, Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba were the spine of the team, and The Pensioners will need experienced heads if they are to go all the way in Europe this season.
Thibaut Courtois, Cesar Azpilicueta, Cesc Fabregas, Pedro and Eden Hazard all hold big game experience, and you can expect them to be Antonio Conte’s lieutenants for the remainder of the season. Gary Cahill and David Luiz are the only survivors from the Champions League winning side of almost six years ago, and although the defensive pair haven’t been certain starters this season, Conte could throw them in for the big European nights to aid those around them.
Made for the big stage
Just looking at this season, Chelsea have a strong record against their top six rivals. They got the better of Tottenham at Wembley (2-1) and produced a superb performance against Manchester United (1-0) during a sticky spell, indicating they hold the minerals for the big clashes.
The Blues have fallen to Manchester City in the league, but the Premier League front runners had to rely on a superb strike from former Chelsea midfielder Kevin De Bruyne to claim the three points. Antonio Conte will admit that he got his tactics wrong during the League Cup loss to Arsenal, and you can ensure he won’t make the same mistake when it comes to the Champions League.
Conte’s counter kings
Chelsea’s five at the back system is perfect for counter-attacking football. The Champions League knockout stages suits the counter-attack down to a tee, with away sides looking to sit deep and grab a crucial away goal on the break.
Antonio Conte knows the 5-2-3 formation better than anyone, and he needs all 11 players to perform their roles perfectively if they are to negotiate their way through the knockout stages. Many of his players are out of form, but if they can run like clockwork as they did on course for the Premier League title last season, they can go toe-to-toe with anyone.
The disciplined defending of Cesar Azpilicueta and Andreas Christensen, the ground coverage of Marcos Alonso and N’Golo Kante and the movement of Eden Hazard and Pedro give this Chelsea side so many assets, and few opponents will be able to outwork Conte’s side.
Fight between the favourites
Who are actually the front runners for the Champions League this season?
Barcelona? They haven’t been tested at all in La Liga, and Europe could come as a massive step up.
Real Madrid? It’s been an abysmal season for the holders, and they are regarded by some to be underdogs ahead of their last 16 clash with PSG after suffering a shock defeat to Tottenham in the group stage.
Bayern Munich? After a tricky start to the season, they have found top form, but the lack of competitiveness in Germany has bitten them in Europe in the past.
Paris Saint-Germain? The Parisians can be blistering to watch, but a 3-0 win over Bayern Munich was followed by a 3-1 loss to the same opponents, suggesting they lack to experience to deal with the big occasion.
Manchester City? The Premier League’s best hope, but with just one Champions League semifinal appearance in their history, European football is still a bit of unknown quantity for Pep Guardiola’s side.
With the five ‘favourites’ all having their faults, the door is open for the brutish Chelsea to claim the title. They may not play the best football, but their run 2012 showed they can find a way to win, no matter how hard things get. With Didier Drogba’s 88th minute equaliser in the Allianz Arena still living long in the memories of Chelsea fans, can they dare to dream once again?