x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Champions League is now Chelsea's main focus after FA Cup exit

This season was always going to be about the Champions League for Chelsea. And so it has transpired, just not in the manner they imagined.

Chelsea's John Terry consoles Ashley Cole after his shoot-out miss against Everton. Jamie McDonald / Getty Images
Chelsea's John Terry consoles Ashley Cole after his shoot-out miss against Everton. Jamie McDonald / Getty Images

This season was always going to be about the Champions League for Chelsea. And so it has transpired, just not in the manner they imagined.

Now, what was supposed to be a single-minded focus on conquering the continent forms the more glamorous half of their to-do list.

Merely securing a ninth successive season in the European elite, something that was long taken for granted, is now problematic.

Fifth in the Premier League, Chelsea will be five points from fourth position if Tottenham Hotspur win at Blackpool tonight.

Meanwhile, Everton's triumph at Stamford Bridge in the FA Cup ended their pursuit of English honours; domestic dominance last season has been swiftly eroded. In any case, it was never Roman Abramovich's priority.

The eight-year odyssey of frustration that has been his European experience shows he has long possessed grander ambitions. Instead the tie against Copenhagen, starting tonight, could be their last in the Champions League for a minimum of 18 months.

It is not what anyone envisaged. Underachievement on such a scale is galling and leaves Carlo Ancelotti's position looking precarious. It is not just the reality of setbacks but the manner of them, that is damning.

Penalties are often described as a lottery, yet when such a resolute competitor as Phil Neville converts the decisive spot kick, they reveal character. In contrast, Nicolas Anelka's insipid attempt suggested Chelsea's nerve is deserting them. Over the past four months, they have failed too many tests, and not just from 12 yards.

Theirs is a season that obdurately refuses to improve. Abramovich's attempt to kick-start it with the injection of £71 million (Dh422.5m), in the shape of Fernando Torres in attack and David Luiz in defence, is yet to reap a dividend.

Neither was eligible for the exit to Everton, but the fact Chelsea have scored a solitary goal in the three games since Torres made his debut contrasts with the return of nine from the previous three.

Ancelotti may be a master of massaging egos but the fragile equilibrium in the dressing room seems disturbed by the owner's largesse. If minds are rebelling, legs are tiring. Chelsea's success over the last seven seasons has come from a combination of organisation, unyielding determination and a devastating dynamism to defeat opponents.

As they age, the last is less evident and accounts for the deterioration in attack. Ignore the 7-0 thrashing of Ipswich Town in the FA Cup and their last 20 games against top-flight opposition have only brought 23 goals.

The 4-3-3 system Jose Mourinho introduced benefited a generation who are now in decline. As a result, thwarting Chelsea has become easier; Everton manage it far too frequently for it to be lucky.

By congesting the centre of the pitch when defending and attacking on the flanks, they highlight the flaws in the formation.

When no one is playing particularly well, the system cannot be held solely responsible but it means that Ancelotti has to consider radical solutions to reverse Chelsea's slide.

With Torres added to the equation tonight - and his availability for the Champions League surely contributed to the timing of his move - and Ancelotti is again confronted by the strangely unenviable dilemma: how does he fit the Spaniard into the side?

As seriously as that question will be taken, it is a secondary consideration. His major task is to plot a way past Copenhagen. Once that would have appeared simple; the Danes are the rank outsiders among the 16 remaining teams.

Yet the certainties of old have been replaced by doubt at Chelsea.

This campaign began amid predictions that it was the last chance for a team who have reached one final and four other semi-finals without achieving their ultimate goal. Now, even taking their favourable draw into consideration, it appears further away than ever.

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Part of football's appeal lies in the unpredictable. Thus it is that Arsenal can beat Barcelona in one match and be taken to a replay by Leyton Orient, from English football's third tier, four days later.

That Jonathan Tehoue's equaliser went through Manuel Almunia's legs was both embarrassing and indicative, but it furthered the Frenchman's remarkable record of scoring late goals.

All of his 11 goals for the club have come as a replacement, and only one before the 85th minute. That, surely, is the definition of a super sub.

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If lower-league sides regularly raise their game in cup ties, that does not excuse the top-flight players who struggle to match them.

That was particularly apparent at Manchester United when Bebe and Gabriel Obertan were utterly ineffectual against Crawley Town. It was an occasion to reinforce the impression that neither player is anything like good enough for the club.

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One of the criticisms levelled at Roy Hodgson by Liverpool supporters was that his substitutions rarely accomplished anything.

So it ranked as an auspicious start to life at West Bromwich Albion when, in the weekend's only Premier League game, one replacement, James Morrison, had the shot that led to the equaliser, scored by another, Carlos Vela.

But in the context of the relegation battle, Albion's draw with Wolverhampton Wanderers was probably the result their rivals would have wanted.

 

sports@thenational.ae