Chelsea are back. After a one-year absence from Europe’s premier competition Chelsea come flying straight into Group C with the momentum of a Premier League title win and a record signing behind them.
Well, except they don’t.
Despite Antonio Conte’s three-at-the-back revolution, star players re-finding their mojo and ‘lesser’ players hitting unforeseen peaks, the wind has been knocked out of the sails this summer. More than £182 million has been spent, but somehow the squad doesn’t look better.
Diego Costa, Nemanja Matic, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Nathaniel Chalobah, Nathan Ake and Bertrand Traore have all departed; either exiled to the beaches of Brazil, sold or reassigned to the Chelsea Loan Army™. A deadline day splurge has helped matters somewhat with the arrival of Davide Zappacosta at right wing-back and Danny Drinkwater taking the central midfielder numbers up to four. The Blues severely lack numbers in certain areas however, and will struggle to cover the three domestic competitions as well as Europe with only one left wing-back and two strikers.
The fanbase feels divided on whether or not Chelsea are on the verge of a crisis, and a poor start to the group stage will only exacerbate the issue. The draw has not been kind to Chelsea, with Atletico Madrid throwing up one of the toughest ties possible and plenty of curious narratives.
April 30, 2014: The last time Chelsea faced Atletico Madrid; a classic counter-attacking display from Los Rojiblancos sent Jose Mourinho’s side crashing out in the Champions League semi-final. A certain Diego Costa scored from the spot on a day John Terry left the field in tears. Neither player will be on the pitch when these teams meet again, thanks to Atletico’s transfer ban (and the release of an icon).
Chelsea fans will be glad to not face the monstrous forward. We’ve all seen Costa at his best, a potent goal machine; we’ve also seen him at his worst, ruining attacks and more worried about starting fights than scoring. But playing against his soon-to-be-former club and sticking it to the manager who exiled him is Costa’s dream pantomime-villain scenario.
There’s no doubt the Spanish international would have terrorised Chelsea’s defenders, and critics would be calling Conte foolish for sending him away. Costa could yet move to Atleti in January, let’s just hope the sides don’t meet again in the knockout stages when he could feature.
Three players who will (likely) be on the field and play enormous parts are Fernando Torres, Thibaut Courtois and Filipe Luis. Torres scored Chelsea’s only goal against his then-former club in 2014 and his career has now come full circle. A goal against his now-former club Chelsea would almost seem poetic.
Courtois also featured that day, playing against Chelsea while on loan in Madrid. He’ll no doubt be targeting an excellent performance against the club he appears to still love. Three months after the semi final Chelsea signed LaLiga’s best left-back Luis from Atletico for £15.8m (how cheap does that sound now!), the move didn’t go to plan and he returned a year later. Now is the Brazilian’s chance to put one over his old club.
Aside from the multiple narratives in play, Atletico will be an extremely difficult proposition for Chelsea. Efficient, disciplined, fast-attacking and defensively solid—with the added experience of consistently winning in Europe—Diego Simeone’s men are a ramped up version of Chelsea.
The midfield pairing of N’Golo Kante and Cesc Fabregas/Danny Drinkwater will need to be at their absolute best for Chelsea to win the fierce midfield battle. But probably the most important players will be Pedro and the returning Eden Hazard; beating one of Europe’s best defences will take moments of magic. Chelsea really need Hazard to return from injury in fine form to get anything out of these ties, and settle the score of a missed 2014 final.
One of the few criticisms levelled at Antonio Conte’s career thus far is a perceived failure in cup competitions. ‘La maledizione della Coppa Italia’—the curse of the Coppa Italia—supposedly haunted his Juventus side in Italy’s domestic cup, and an FA Cup Final loss to Arsenal at the end of 2016-17 hasn’t helped matters.
But most called out is the Italian’s record in Europe. Frankly, losing to eventual-champions Bayern Munich in 2013 and falling out at the group stage the following year is way, way short of failure. That’s the nature of knockout football and if Chelsea are blown out of Europe, it probably won’t be because Conte can’t work out teams from other countries.
Roma are familiar foes for Conte, but look totally different since he left Serie A in 2014. Francesco Totti wasn’t the only Roma player to leave this summer; a firesale of major stars has been followed by Monchi’s 10 (mostly) shrewd first-team signings, capped off by the elegant Patrik Schick, who could cost anything from €5m-€42m in one of the most complicated deals of the summer.
Roma at this point are totally unpredictable and their run of form ahead of Chelsea’s ties will shape the style of these matches. Chelsea will expect to take maximum points, but Roma won’t be pushovers.
Chelsea new-boy Antonio Rudiger was one of Roma’s major sales in July, but the £34 million defender may or may not face his former side given Chelsea have plenty of competition at the back. He’ll have to fight for that spot. David Luiz is the only guaranteed starter, while Gary Cahill, Cesar Azpilicueta (could also play right wing-back), Andreas Christensen and the German fight for the spots either side of Luiz in the back three.
While Rudiger will no doubt look forward to facing his former teammates, Alvaro Morata might be looking forward to facing Roma centre-back Kostas Manolas for more heated reasons:
Despite a tough summer and a tough draw Chelsea fans will always expect the best. Years of seemingly impossible ties, victories against Europe’s elite clubs and lifting the Champions League against the greatest of odds in 2012 show there’s always a chance of winning.
Anything other than qualification with some big results will feel like a failure to most. And from then fans can dream as the competition rolls on. The players who made up those famously resilient sides may have moved on, but Chelsea haven’t. The passion, the grit, the determination are still there in spades, with plenty of thanks to Antonio Conte.
By: Alex McGovern
Photo: Getty Images