x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Champions League holders Chelsea's challenge to get best out of European champions

For a team of champions, motivation for the lesser prize may be tricky.

Chelsea have to get the best out of Fernando Torres, Juan Mata and Victor Moses, all continental champs. Andrew Yates / AFP
Chelsea have to get the best out of Fernando Torres, Juan Mata and Victor Moses, all continental champs. Andrew Yates / AFP

The fashionable song among supporters of Chelsea until early December began with the words "We know what we are", answering back some derogatory chants aimed by opposing fans at a club which, over the last 18 months, has attracted some unwanted controversies.

"We know what we are," the refrain would go, "we're champions of Europe".

The holders of the Uefa Champions League may still be that, but only in theory.

Having set the uncomfortable precedent of becoming the first Champions League winners in the 21 history of the event - since it was reshaped from the pure knockout European Cup - to be eliminated in the next season's group phase, the defence of that title already has its expiry date.

That fact comes into sharp focus tonight in Prague, where Chelsea play their first game in the Europa League, the tournament into which their third-placed finish, behind Juventus and Shakhtar Donetsk in the superior competition's mini-league, relegated them.

For a team of champions, motivation for the lesser prize may be tricky.

But if the measure of a true champion is his desire to accumulate medals, whatever their tint, then some greedy habits among several Chelsea players might be a significant asset.

There are four members of this Chelsea squad who still have the very live status of continental champions next to their names.

Fernando Torres and Juan Mata remain defending champions of Europe thanks to last July's triumph with Spain at Euro 2012.

On Sunday, John Obi Mikel and Victor Moses assumed the equivalent status, thanks to their roles in Nigeria's victory at the African Cup of Nations.

Just as Torres and Mata were conspicuous in Spain's glory in Kiev, Ukraine - both scoring in the 4-0 win against Italy in the final - Mikel and Moses played commanding parts in Nigeria's success in South Africa.

Moses, brilliant on both flanks in Nigeria's victory over Mali in the semi-final and in the deserved win against Burkina Faso that clinched the country's first Nations Cup for 19 years, was man of the match in the final.

The acceleration and upper body strength of Moses makes him the most effective orthodox winger Chelsea have on their roster.

But, though he has featured regularly and decisively since his move to London from Wigan Athletic last August, Moses has still to make a case for first choice inclusion in an attacking trio of advanced midfield players where Mata, Oscar and Eden Hazard also operate.

Mikel, whose best position has been the subject of much debate at Chelsea, whom he joined as a teenaged No 10 type, then retreated to deeper in midfield, was also outstanding for Nigeria.

His long passing from a role which was sometimes barely two or three metres in front of the back four would be crucial to their counter-attacking game.

"What we needed," said Joseph Yobo, Nigeria's captain, "was someone like Mikel to dictate the play from midfield. That was his responsibility and he took it very well."

Of Moses, Yobo added: "We have been very happy with what he brings to the team."

Nigeria's head coach Stephen Keshi - who yesterday confirmed he would be staying in his job after 24 hours in which his future seemed uncertain - emphasised how little time he had to work and formulate tactics with his players ahead of the tournament.

It is the burden of international managers. Chelsea coaches often do not get very long either to develop strategy, because they work under a trigger-happy owner.

But Rafael Benitez, and whoever succeeds him - probably after June - might take an educative glance at how Keshi got the best out of Mikel and Moses.

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