Back in 2012, when Chelsea beat Bayern Munich to win the Champions League, it felt like the culmination of Roman Abramovich’s ambitious and well-financed project in west London.
And though the way that they won the continent’s premier cup competition for the first time might not have been via the method many expected –with Roberto Di Matteo as the interim coach of a team that could at best be described as ‘cautious’ –few could argue that it was not deserved, after a succession of runs to the latter stages of the tournament.
Since that triumphant evening at the Allianz Arena, though, Chelsea’s stock in Europe has fallen somewhat.
They have only been past the last 16 of the Champions League once since 2012, with their semi-final appearance 2014 the last time they got even remotely close to lifting the trophy.
The Blues have, to their credit, won the Europa League on two occasions in the eight years since Munich, but it is in the Champions League where the final judgement on Abramovich’s rein will likely be made.
Last season’s 7-1 aggregate defeat to Bayern in the first knockout round underlined just how far the Stamford Bridge outfit have fallen down the European pecking order.
Facing the Bundesliga giants for the first time since Didier Drogba’s finest night in a blue shirt, Frank Lampard’s team were given a footballing lesson across two legs by the eventual champions.
For much of the 180 minutes, they resembled a Europa League-quality side who were merely happy to still be in the competition, rather than a teamwith any expectation of reaching the last eight.
The hope is that this season will be different.
Abramovich’s decision to sign off on£220 million ($275m) worth of new signings over the summer has already begun to pay dividends, with the Blues having lost just one of their 16 matches this season in all competitions inside 90 minutes, leaving themwell in the picture to challenge for the Premier League title.
The form of new arrivals Timo Werner, Hakim Ziyech, Thiago Silva and Edouard Mendy, coupled with the continuedimprovements shown by homegrown starlets Mason Mount, Reece James and Tammy Abraham, has also helped ensure qualification for the Champions League knockout stage with two group games to spare.
Though handed a helpful draw alongside competition debutants Rennes and Krasnodar, the Blues have made short work of their continental fixtures thus far, and now know that a win over Sevilla on Wednesday will ensure them top spot and a place among the seeds for the last 16.
“I am excited to see my players face a Chelseathat aredesigned to win the Champions League,” Sevilla boss Julen Lopetegui said ahead of the clash, and his sentimentson the make-up of Lampard’ssquad will likely be echoed around Europe, given the Blues spent more than any other club during the summer window.
Though the Blues have impressed against lesser opposition so far this season, they have been more circumspect against more established sides, leading to them drawing blanksin league games against Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham, as well as in their first meeting with Sevilla, which finished 0-0.
If Chelsea are to truly compete with Europe’s elite, they will likely have to come out of their shell come the knockout rounds, thoughtheir ability to keep clean sheets at the other end does, at least, suggestthat there will be no repeat of the Bayern debacle this term.
The improvement at the back has allowed Lampard to go about his business relatively quietly, with the hope being that every aspect of the team’s play will begin to come together around the time the trophies are being handed out in the spring.
“Some managers like to do that, keep a lid on it,” ex-Chelsea midfielder and BT Sport pundit, JoeCole, said ahead of Wednesday’s clash at Estadio Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan. “Sometimes what they say to the press and their team are very different at times.
“I think with Chelsea, the structure is in place and improvements have been made in defence and with the goalkeeper, and Frank is in the right place, the place he should be in.
“He can’t hide away from the expectations and the owner will demand success. But I think Frank knows that and I am convinced Chelsea will be up there at the end of the season.”
Lampard is expected to make alterations to his line-up in Spain, with the likes of Olivier Giroud and Callum Hudson-Odoi set to return, while Kai Havertz and Christian Pulisic will step up their recoveries from illness and injury, respectively.
The manager does not expect the performance levels to drop, however, with the 42-year-old acutely aware that Abramovich has bankrolled a squad capable of beating any team in Europe on its day.
It is worth remembering that Abramovich was convinced to buy a Premier League club after witnessing Manchester United’s dramatic 4-3 loss to Real Madrid at Old Trafford back in 2003.
Source : goal.com