It has been nothing short of a catastrophic start to the season for Premier League champions Chelsea, who now find themselves just two points above the relegation zone in 17th place after losing 3-1 to Everton on Saturday, but tonight’s Champions League clash with minnows Maccabi Tel Aviv should provide a welcome respite.
Indeed, the difference between the almost impenetrable title-winning Blues of last term and the dysfunctionally porous Chelsea of the current campaign is a vast, cataclysmic and mind-boggling one that absolutely nobody anticipated.
In August, BBC Sport asked 30 pundits to predict this season’s top four. All but eight tipped the west Londoners to become the Premier League’s first title retainers since 2009 and only one – Alistair Mann – audaciously estimated that they’d finish outside of the top two.
Yet Chelsea’s form this season is almost an identical negative reflection of last year. They finished 2014/15 with the best defensive record in the league; now they’re the unfortunate owners of the worst, conceding twelve times in just five fixtures – almost 38% of their goals against total from last season.
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Likewise, Chelsea lost just thrice in the Premier League last season but have already succumbed to defeat at the hands of Manchester City, Crystal Palace and the Toffees. They’ve also shot up from 15th to 7th in terms of shots faced per match, dropped from 10th to 15th in terms of tackles per-match and already received half the amount of red cards they did en route to the 2015 title.
Theorising the cause of Chelsea’s monolithic decline has left pundits posing more questions than answers.
Many have pointed the finger at Branislav Ivanovic and captain John Terry who, telling enough, was substituted for the first time ever by Jose Mourinho during the 3-0 defeat to Manchester City. Likewise, Ivanovic has been dribbled past on ten occasions already this year; the most of any Premier League defender and nearly two-thirds of his total from last term in just five appearances.
Sky Sports’ Gary Neville, however, analysed a lack of enthusiasm and protection from midfield during this week’s instalment of Monday Night Football, whilst BBC’s Trevor Sinclair believes the Blues, quite simply, are yet to come to terms with the fact every side in the league wants a victory against reigning champions on their resume. In short, they’re now public enemy No.1.
But the enormous diversity of opinion shows that truly, nobody quite understands the root of Chelsea’s woes. Even Jose Mourinho, the Premier League’s indisputable kind of smoke-screening, has run out of excuses to gloss over bad results, whilst the players appear more surprised than anyone by their sudden plight.
At this point, the mission to find an underlying cause feels almost futile. What Chelsea really need is a distraction from domestic woes, which is what tonight’s Champions League affair with Maccabi Tel Aviv provides.
The Israeli outfit are by no means pushovers; they claimed last term’s title with a five-point surplus, are undefeated in six and reached the CL proper by beating FC Basel on away goals over two legs – the Swiss champs who recorded a double over Chelsea in the group stages two years ago. Likewise, although wholesale changes could take place this evening, the Blues, as a group of players, are still short of confidence and form.
But if anybody’s to succumb to the role of whipping boys in Group G, also containing FC Porto and Dynamo Kiev, Tel Aviv are the leading candidates by quite some distance through their comparatively limited experience in Europe’s top competition. So under the protection of Stamford Bridge – a stadium Jose Mourinho has only lost twice at before in the Champions League – a relatively comfortable win seems somewhat inevitable this evening, even if it won’t be the prettiest of Chelsea displays.
Psychologically too, the players will welcome the separation between European and domestic football; although their form is inevitably interlinked, the Champions League offers the chance to start anew – as if Chelsea’s 2015/16 campaign now beings here.
And that isn’t exclusive to simply this evening’s 90 minutes. With Manchester City starting so strongly in the Premier League and already creating an eleven point lead over the incumbents, winning five of five without conceding a single goal, Chelsea’s title retention hopes now rest upon a crisis as devastating as their own developing at the Etihad before the end of May.
So progress in Europe’s top competition – or better yet, victory in next summer’s final – would adequately gloss over this season’s domestic failings. We know Jose Mourinho possess the nous to do so, having claimed the Champions League title twice before and at FC Porto particularly, with a squad considerably inferior to the one he currently oversees. Similarly, for all of Chelsea’s recent tribulations, the strategic, efficient and occasionally attritional side to their game is practically tailor-made for high-pressure Champions League double-leggers.
Of course, the Champions League is the toughest tournament in world football, dominated by Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid over the last few years, so perhaps notions of the west Londoners winning it are rather premature – especially considering this is their worst start to a season in 29 years.
After consecutive defeats in the league, all that truly matters this evening is a return to winning ways, against a side many would have tipped the Blues’ second string to surpass just a matter of months ago. Whilst recent results provide motivation to improve, the switch to the continental stage allows Chelsea’s players not to feel tied down by them. Something tells me we’ll see a far more convincing performance this evening.