Having lost feelgood factor the danger for Chelsea is slump becomes something more permanent
With Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool looking more vibrant, it may take more then the likely replacement of Antonio Conte to get the London side back in the top four
The Juventus, Italy and Chelsea great was blunt. His motives could not be questioned. Antonio Conte cannot wait to leave Chelsea, said Gianluca Vialli, a teammate and predecessor.
The current Chelsea manager’s analysis has also been cutting but, unlike Vialli’s, laced with self-interest that requires interpretation.
One era ended on Sunday, Tottenham Hotspur winning at Stamford Bridge for the first time in 28 years. A rather shorter one seems certain to conclude in the summer.
Conte’s departure has long gone from possibility to probability. Five defeats in seven league games, a slide to fifth and downbeat rhetoric casting the club as culprits while he has sought to escape the blame have seen to that.
There is a temptation to assume Chelsea’s peculiar cycle of boom and bust will start again, that the new-manager effect at Stamford Bridge will again turn underachievement into title-winning glory before the pattern repeats itself.
Such is the strange short-termism that managers seem galvanised into delivering an immediate impact by the knowledge the sack tends to come if they do not.
Yet there is another scenario. Chelsea are now eight points behind Tottenham. For the second time in three seasons, they should be confined to the role of spectators in next season’s Champions League.
For the first since Roman Abramovich’s takeover, they will enter the Europa League in the group stages.
Which poses the question if this is not an aberration, but the start of a shift in the pecking order. It is partly because Tottenham and Liverpool, without winning the trophies Chelsea claim, seem to be building something sustainable.
In contrast, Chelsea have become a business model, generating prices for players they do not pick. Yet if Conte’s claiming he has got the maximum from his charges this season when they are 28 points behind Manchester City feels a self-justifying deflection of failure, it is undeniable that they no longer possess the most gifted group.
That, in turn, could deter the finest managerial targets from taking on the challenge from Conte.
When Conte said that Chelsea deserve the season they are having, it felt a veiled criticism of his employers. They are entitled to argue that transfers are not as simple as he seems to assume and that even Chelsea do not possess a bottomless pit of money.
But the consequence of missing out on a host of A-Listers – Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez, Virgil van Dijk, Leonardo Bonucci, Alex Sandro, Radja Nainggolan and co – is that Chelsea have become disproportionately reliant on a select few: Eden Hazard, in particular, plus N’Golo Kante and Cesar Azpilicueta.
The Belgian has appeared disgruntled at times in a season when he has shouldered too great a burden. His talks about a contract extension have been postponed.
Chelsea may yet reap a long-term benefit for replacing Nemanja Matic and Diego Costa with Tiemoue Bakayoko and Alvaro Morata but they might simply have downgraded.
They can look for youthful recruitment but they still have an ageing squad, with Pedro, Olivier Giroud, Cesc Fabregas, David Luiz and Gary Cahill in their thirties and Willian soon to join them.
They have bought expensive squad players, in Davide Zappacosta and Danny Drinkwater, at a combined price that could have got a high-class starter.
Now each of the top four look more talented; perhaps Abramovich will spend or Tottenham sell to change that, but a side that ran 7km more than Chelsea on Sunday are also a more vibrant team at a more harmonious club.
Certainly Tottenham and Liverpool have had a feelgood factor that a fractious Conte has denied Chelsea. It explains why they are higher in the league.
But defeats to Tottenham can assume a significance. Just ask Liverpool. They almost won the league in 2009, lost the opening game of the next season at White Hart Lane to what soon appeared a stronger Spurs group and became strangers to the Champions League.
The parallels are inexact but the risk for Chelsea is that the top four will be reshaped without them in it. And not just for one season.
Updated: April 2, 2018 12:49 PM