Can Chelsea realistically play European football next season?
Aside from the goal-scoring heroics of Jamie Vardy, the relentless unpredictability of the title race and Aston Villa’s dire decline, arguably the main talking point of this season’s Premier League has been Chelsea’s woeful collapse.
José Mourinho’s December dismissal was a shock for many but underpinned exactly how poor the Blues had started the campaign. At the season’s half-way point, the South-London club sat nineteen points adrift of leaders Arsenal, having currently lost three times as many games as last season already.
While many point the finger at the Portuguese manager’s squabble with former club doctor Eva Carneiro, others feel the players lost faith with the boss, as a formerly unbreakable defence became fragile and, going forward, the likes of Eden Hazard and Diego Costa couldn’t finish a Mars bar.
Rightly or wrongly, the group were deemed to have not stood by their boss and it now seems difficult to envisage a revival worthy of continental qualification. Previously, one potential pathway would have been UEFA’s Financial Fair Play initiative but, as of last year, such a title merely secures a financial bonus and no Europa League qualification.
So, for the Stamford Bridge faithful desperate for their beloved side to step onto the European stage next year, how can Chelsea pave a path to the continental stage?
Ultimately, they may just need to do the impossible and propel themselves up the league ladder. Under the stewardship of new gaffer Guus Hiddink, the club polished off Palace in their first match of the new year, running out 3-0 winners.
It seems that things are improving, given that the club from the capital are unbeaten since Mourinho’s axing. However, a couple of extra January additions may still be required to keep the crop on their toes. Alex Teixeira’s been mentioned as a creative option, while Patrick Bamford has returned from being on loan to assume the role of a surprise attacking option.
The league has genuinely been so topsy-turvy that no-one can predict with certainty just how the table will pan out come May this year and, with this precarious reality, there comes an opportunity to a point where even Chelsea can still turn their season around. It will be reliant on a few slip-ups (from the season’s surprise packages most notably; Leicester being a prime example) but mainly on the Blues’ performances in the big games.
If I were in the Chelsea dugout at present, my priority would be getting the players mentally prepared for each and every match, given that the group’s psychology has proved to be the greatest stumbling block in their advances. The run of good form currently could be utilised as a springboard for them to string together some much-needed points but the finish will come down to how the side fairs against the higher end teams.
Chelsea finished sixth in the EPL but took Tottenham’s place in the Champions League by winning the tournament
What if it is too late for Hiddink and Chelsea though? What if no number of emphatic victories could guarantee them playing in next season’s Champions League? Well, alternatively, the club could qualify by virtue of winning this season’s edition of the prominent competition.
Cast your minds back to the 2011/12 campaign in which Chelsea finished sixth, five points behind fourth-placed Tottenham, but the Blues took their London neighbours’ place in the Champions League by winning the tournament that same season. It’s quite possible such an occurrence could happen this year. Say Leicester were to finish a remarkable fourth – an astonishing achievement. If the Blues went on to lift the UCL crown in May at the San Siro, then they would supersede the Foxes as England’s fourth entry into the prestigious competition.
Of course, such a possibility relies heavily on whether or not Chelsea can stave off the challenges of such giants as FC Barcelona, Real Madrid and FC Bayern Munich in order to become winners. Their first and foremost challenge presents itself as a last sixteen clash with PSG across February and March.
How January transfer window can help the Blues rejuvenate their season
As with their potential league transfiguration, Chelsea’s success in the Champions League will be greatly affected by the business carried out in this month’s transfer window. The once ever-so-reliant veterans of the back-line, John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic, are ageing and have lost their stability of last season, while the more youthful defensive options are a little too inexperienced to form a consistent base.
That leaves the option for the Blues to dip into their transfer kitty and re-open negotiations with John Stones. If the Toffee was added into the mix and provided that Hiddink snaps up a creative outlet (such as the aforementioned Teixeira), the Blues would stand a much more promising chance in my eyes of winning the grandest club competition of the lot. That said, Eden Hazard must also start to rejuvenate his career to inaugurate a Chelsea steam train.
Whether the Blues capitalise on teams near the top falling away in order to qualify the old-fashioned way or triumph in the Champions League itself, the dwindling flames of hope regarding European football next season are still flickering ever so lightly. Home form will be crucial over the next few months, as the Blues are yet to host Man City, Man Utd, Tottenham and Leicester this term; if home advantage is used to gain these scalps, who knows what the South-Londoners will be capable of.