Sport

Team spirit was a cornerstone of great Chelsea teams in the past. It seems to be returning.

Chelsea reached the semi-finals of the Champions League last night, seven years on from when they last reached the same stage of Europe’s premier club football competition. But why has it taken so long for Chelsea to get back to the closing stages of the Champions League? Why have they failed to build on their success of 2012 and become perennial semi-finalists and finalists?

Well, for one thing Chelsea’s league form has not been anywhere near as consistent in the year after that famous night in Munich as it was before. Thus, as league position dictates European participation, Chelsea had two seasons where they did not qualify to play in the Champions League at all. Both seasons were successful however, winning the Premier League and the Europa League respectively. But it’s interesting to note that in Eden Hazard’s entire Chelsea career, the club only reached even the quarter-finals once. This is one of the finest players in the club’s history and he only got beyond the first knockout round that one time in 2014. That kind of blows my mind. But then again, running concurrently besides that fact is the one that Frank Lampard’s final season as a player at the club was the last time Chelsea reached the semi-finals of the Champions League. What conclusion can be drawn from that? It is something I’ll return to.

From 2003 to 2011, Chelsea consistently finished in the top four, guaranteeing them Champions League football. The first time in the Abramovich era that they didn’t finish in those coveted spots, they won the whole competition and qualified to play in the following season’s tournament by dint of being the holders. But just four years after the greatest night in the history of the club, we were seeing out the final games of the club’s worst season in decades. Chelsea didn’t finish in the top four. They barely finished in the top half. And since then, Chelsea European participation has been rather like a yo-yo. First, they weren’t in any European competition at all. Then they were back in the Champions League, but didn’t get past the last 16. Then, they were in the Europa League, and the last two complete seasons have seen them qualify for the Champions League group stages. Chelsea’s increasingly up-and-down league performances have had a serious impact on their European performances. All the games in a season affect each other. If the team isn’t playing well domestically it’s even less likely that they are going to be able to defeat Europe’s elite clubs.  Which is something to have in mind. Chelsea have come against top opposition at the first knockout hurdle in each of their previous four Champions League campaigns; twice against Paris Saint Germain, once against Barcelona when they were still an extremely good team who were dominating La Liga, and Bayern Munich last year, who ripped apart the Bundesliga and the Champions League. They have faced elite opposition every time. And in this campaign, they’ve come up against Atletico Madrid, who are never an easy side to beat, and a Porto side that had just knocked out Juventus while having a player sent off for the most ridiculously dumb (as in the player was dumb to do what he did) second yellow card I think I’ve ever seen. It has not been plain sailing for Chelsea this year. In the semis, they will face either six times winners Liverpool, or Real Madrid; the most successful side in the history of the competition. It’s not going to get any easier.

I posed the question about why Chelsea haven’t been able to build on their Champions League win of 2012. I also raised the point that 2013-14 was the last time that Chelsea made the semi-finals, and how that was Frank Lampard’s final season with the club as a player. The reason I brought that up was because it represents the team that won the Champions League quickly being broken up. In fact, if you look at the team that won the Premier League in 2014-15, there are very few players left that were in the 2011-12 squad. John Terry, Petr Cech, Branislav Ivanovic, Gary Cahill, Ramires, John Obi Mikel and Didier Drogba were all that remained, though Drogba had left immediately after the Champions League win and returned at the start of that season. So many of the players that had contributed so much to Chelsea and had been the backbone of the teams that were so good throughout the 2000s had gone. And I think some of the spirit went too. Chelsea’s winning Champions League run defied the odds. So many times, they had their backs against the wall and were able to find in themselves to respond and come through to win. They held their nerve. But as more and more of those players left the club, no one really rose up to take their place as leaders in the squad. With fewer leaders, the players couldn’t produce when the games turned against them. But this team is starting to feel like it has that spirit again. Maybe it’s because so many of the players have either come through the academy or have been at the club for a long time and grown into leadership roles. Cesar Azpilicueta is a great captain, he learnt from John Terry and Frank Lampard how to lead a dressing room. Mason Mount is, in my mind, going to be Chelsea captain when Azpilicueta leaves. The team have grown together and bonded together, and have a manager in charge who can lead them through difficult periods, that you can’t rule out Chelsea getting to the final. What an improvement that would be over recent years.

This piece was written before the quarter-final second leg match between Liverpool and Real Madrid on 14/04/2021.

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