Chelsea’s defeat at the Camp Nou was probably expected.
A first leg in which Willian fired the Blues into the lead after hitting the woodwork twice showed that there’s life left in the team who, let’s remember, are still the English champions. If it weren’t for Lionel Messi – and his three goals and an assist over the two legs – maybe it would be Antonio Conte’s side in Friday afternoon’s quarter-final draw instead.
Still, it was encouraging from Chelsea, just weeks after an away trip to a similar team saw possibly the most damningly limp performance any champion has ever produced.
The display that Conte’s men put on at the Etihad Stadium can be explained (generously) by a few things: perhaps the level City are at this season is simply higher than we give them credit for; maybe the previous day’s shocking news about the death of Fiorentina captain Davide Astori – former teammate of Davide Zappacosta and Marcos Alonso and former player of Conte himself – was a greater blow to the side than we imagined; or maybe the nature of the game, in a competition Chelsea weren’t really worried about, led them to give a disinterested performance. Indeed, it could have been a combination of these factors.
Social media was awash with criticism and, most notably, an incriminating video of Chelsea players declining to engage with City even when they were 1-0 down and in need of a goal. It was shocking.
So bad was it that afterwards some wondered if Conte should be up for the sack. Had he lost the players or was he even attempting to bait the owner into sacking him instead?
Chelsea are a strange beast. They appear to work on a one season on, one season off basis. Winning the league and League Cup under Jose Mourinho in 2014/15 was backed up by a dismal performance the next year when the manager was gone by Christmas, the club was a mess and Leicester City went on to win the title.
There are some parallels to that year, but in truth there aren’t too many. The general trajectory of the club was downward both times, as was the feeling that they couldn’t keep up the pace they’d set the previous year. Both times there’s also been a conflict between board and manager: but you could say that about any season in which Chelsea aren’t winning titles.
Indeed, there’s an obvious difference. Beyond the general success of the season, the sacking of the manager and the ruptures in the dressing room which don’t appear to be there this year, there’s one performance in particular that stands out.
This year, Chelsea faced the champions-elect in City and laid down their arms. If that was a handing of the baton to another team, it was limp and subservient. In 2016, when Leicester City were romping their way to the title, Chelsea were kingmakers. When Tottenham Hotspur came to Stamford Bridge aiming to stay in the title race, they needed to beat Chelsea, the champions.
After going 2-0 up, the Blues rallied and came back to 2-2, drawing a game which descended into farce. But it wasn’t the performance that mattered, it was the professional pride the players showed, the bite and the defiance. They knew they weren’t going to be the champions, they weren’t even close, but they wanted to put up a fight which said, ‘if you want to be the champions, you have to beat us’. In the end, because they couldn’t and because Leicester, a few weeks later, could, they can legitimately say they passed the baton in the right way.
This time Chelsea were not the kingmakers. They were never going to stop City from winning the title, and even if they’d beaten the league leaders they would have been nothing but a fly on the windscreen of an unstoppable juggernaut aiming to win the Premier League title in just a few weeks at home, in front of their own fans in a game against their city rivals, Manchester United.
But what Chelsea could have done was put up a fight. They could, as they did against Tottenham in 2016, have ensured that he baton was passed to a team they knew deserved it. City do deserve it, by any standard they are the best team, but Chelsea did nothing to test them or keep them honest.
Against Barcelona at the Camp Nou they righted that wrong to a certain extent. They put up a fight and were beaten only by the Best. But against City a few weeks ago they couldn’t find that Tottenham 2016 spirit. Perhaps that’s the most damning thing about Antonio Conte’s second season in charge.