With Chelsea seemingly unable to compete with their title rivals on the pitch or in transfer negotiations off it, a complete rebuild may be required at Stamford Bridge.
Desire has deserted Chelsea football club
Arsene Wenger saw the end of a great Chelsea team in the players' eyes. Arsenal had lost their early October visit to Stamford Bridge, Chelsea were champions and leading the division by a margin that had almost all and sundry predicting a procession.
Not Wenger. "Chelsea will not win the league this season," he told friends. "They no longer have the desire."
In late January, after the worst sequence of results in a decade, without an away victory since the month of Wenger's prediction, 10 points adrift of Manchester's joint-league leaders, struggling to hold Tottenham Hotspur off the last Champions League slot, a grand Chelsea era is close to ending in a cataclysm.
Carlo Ancelotti cannot say it, but the next four months are not about retaining the title, they are about the future of Roman Abramovich's dream of lifting the European Cup.
Ask Ancelotti what happens if Chelsea fail to qualify for the Champions League for the first time since Abramovich instigated his £750 million (Dh4.4bn) pursuit of the planet's premier club trophy, and his answer is blunt: "It's unthinkable."
Ask those close to Abramovich what the owner would do if he found himself watching the Champions League from the outside and the only unequivocal response is that the Russian would not walk away from Chelsea.
Would Abramovich revise his recent strategy of cutting expenditure on transfers, salaries and bonuses while promoting academy prospects to the first team? Possibly. Would he spend heavily to re-equip a team whose most prominent figures are all in or on the verge of their thirties? If Abramovich thought it necessary, the money would be there.
Consider, though, the dimensions of that rebuild. By one well-placed analysis, Abramovich would be looking at replacing Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard and John Terry - a £100 million undertaking.
Beyond the finances is a requirement for scouting and negotiating skills that Abramovich's capricious rule has long since rooted from the club. To so radically rebuild a team is an exercise even Wenger or Sir Alex Ferguson might balk at.
Telling is the judgement of Steven Pienaar when asked to commit his future to either Chelsea or Tottenham last week. During four days of negotiations, Chelsea delivered a financial offer to both the player and his representatives that exceeded Tottenham's in all aspects. The difference was not huge, and Chelsea would not meet Pienaar's request for appearance-related bonuses, yet it would have been large enough to usher any materially motivated individual into Stamford Bridge. Instead, the South African made his decision for football reasons.
During the course of conversations with Bruce Buck, the Chelsea chairman, the Pienaar's camp sensed an instability in the club's structure. They felt Ancelotti might be sacked before the end of the season, his position handed to assistant Michael Emenalo (a man who clearly had Abramovich's ear), and, if the underqualified Nigerian struggled, another manager appointed in the summer.
Couple such uncertainty over the coaching staff with Buck's extraordinary position that Pienaar would be "nice to have but not a must-have" and doubts surfaced. A new coach, calculated Pienaar, would likely request expensive signings of his own. Seven of Chelsea's first team would be 30 within a year, whereas Spurs are a young side headed in the right direction with a firmly established manager who wanted him in his first XI.
A close friend, the Manchester City midfielder Nigel de Jong, confirmed his instincts: Tottenham was the better place for Pienaar.
Sensitive to reports that Ancelotti did not want Pienaar and that the player had been unimpressed by their manager, Chelsea claim they only saw him as a squad player and that Pienaar rejected three opportunities to meet Ancelotti in person. Pienaar's camp admit he did decline a meeting with Ancelotti last week but that he had been invited to meet Emenalo first.
Whether the Italian could have persuaded him to join is questionable. Though they still like him as an individual, some senior players now complain of Ancelotti's training.
There are complaints of his failure to stand up to Abramovich over Ray Wilkins's sacking as assistant and the enforced promotion of Emenalo.
There is frustration that Ancelotti will not push for changes to a medical department that has made repeated mistakes over the diagnosis of injuries to Lampard and Michael Essien, and allowed Drogba to become debilitated by malaria.
"At the moment there's a bit of a feeling we're not sure what's going to happen when we go out there," said Lampard a week ago. "The end of [Luiz Felipe] Scolari's reign was a bit like this. You lose the feeling of being able to win every week. Once you've had that and lose it, it's hard to get it back."
A debilitated central defence will be without Alex for two more months, yet Chelsea hoping that Benfica will lower their asking price for David Luiz to €25m (Dh125m).
They are making enquiries about strikers, but more as summer purchases. Carrying down this path, an era will end with the season. And players Chelsea are thinking of moving on will be pushing for their own exits.
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