So, just 200 days after lifting the trophy in May, last night Chelsea failed to qualify from the group stages of the Champions League for the first time in their history. As Shakhtar failed to beat Juventus at home, our 6-1 hammering of Nordsjaellend counted for nothing as we ended in 3rd place, trailing to the Ukrainian team because of our head to head record.
It’s a depressing situation. It’s embarrassing as well – becoming the first ever defending champions to be eliminated this early. You have to move forward quickly in football however and there are some positives to take away here, even if they seem pretty insignificant at the moment.
Firstly we have by no means disgraced ourselves, finishing behind two world class sides, both of whom have experienced, settled squads and first XIs. I personally wouldn’t be surprised to see either of them reach the semi-finals; Juventus in particular have to be considered one of the favourites to win the entire competition. The Italians may not have qualified for the last 16 since 2008, but their side boasts far more European experience than ours does. The way I look at it, having moved on Drogba, and in having Terry and Lampard injured for half the campaign, fielding a team based around Mata, Oscar, Hazard and Torres in attack and labelling them ‘defending champions’, didn’t seem quite fair. If Chelsea had won the competition again this year, it would’ve surely felt like a completely separate achievement to what happened last May- certainly it would’ve compared to our retention of the Premier League in 2006 for example.
Last night’s result was also a good reason to feel optimistic. By beating the Danish minnows 6-1 we ensured that we finished the group stages as the tournament’s top scorers with 16 goals. Having collected 10 points in addition to those goals means our group campaign was the most successful in Champions League history, not to result in qualification. Admittedly it’s not the greatest distinction in the world but still, we can hold out heads high and say ‘nobody finishes third quite as well as we do’.
I don’t think there’s much point writing a lot about last night’s game. We played well/looked good but Nordsjaellend were so poor I don’t think we did much more than what was expected. No doubt a 1-0 against Sunderland on Saturday would do far more to ease this initial pressure Benitez has created for himself. Goals from Luiz (pen), Cahill, Mata, Oscar and a brace for Torres sealed the win. I thought Oriol Romeu, who held a fairly fixed position whilst everyone else (including the centre halves) took up a free attacking role, deserved to be praised. I thought the young Spaniard knitted the plays together well, allowing his midfield colleagues to do pretty much what they wanted.
At this stage I assume it’s fair to say what hurts just as much as exiting the Champions League, is the thought of playing in the Europa League on Thursday nights in the new year. For serial finalists/semi-finalists of the UCL like ourselves, the competition really is just a bogey prize – something it seems hardly worth our while bothering with. However, as much as some of us might not want them, our Europa league ties will be important fixtures next season. European experience at any level is invaluable for the likes of Oscar, Hazard, Moses, Marin, Azpilicueta etc as we’ll look to come back stronger next year.
The new spine of this team is still so young. I fully believe one day we’ll see a Chelsea team with Hazard, Oscar, De Bruyne, McEachran, Courtois, Lukaku etc lift the Champions League for us again. Being realistic however, I’d guess that it’s at least 4/5 years away from happening.
Until then, KTBFFH