The Chelsea collapse, a Real lesson

KARIM BENZEMA was supposed to be finished a couple of years ago, yet since Cristiano Ronaldo left Real Madrid, the Frenchman has come out of the shadows and shown that he remains a superb striker. Chelsea discovered that the 34 year-old still has tricks up his sleeve, twisting like a 24 year-old to head not one but two peculiarly brilliant goals. And if that wasn’t enough, he took advantage of some dire defending by the home side to score his second consecutive UEFA Champions League hat-trick.

But what of Chelsea, the almost certainly deposed European champions and orphaned by sanctions on their owner, Roman Abramovich, where do they go now? Unless a miracle takes place, they may have to hang on to third place in the Premier League. And then there’s the FA Cup semi-final with Thomas Tuchel’s side up against a resurgent Crystal Palace. Chelsea’s season could fall apart by April 17 if they are not careful.

Suddenly, their defence looks very suspect, perhaps because Thiago Silva is 37 after all, or because Andreas Christensen has one eye on a move to Spain, but conceding seven goals in two home games is almost unheard of at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea do have something in their DNA that triggers unexpected capitulation, such as the 5-2 defeat against hapless West Bromwich Albion in 2020-21. It was actually Rüdiger and Mendy that allowed Benzema in for the decisive third goal, but what was happening when his headers sailed into the net? 

Fatigue may be playing a part. Chelsea haven’t been the same since their autumn effervescence and a mid-season jaunt to Abu Dhabi for the worthless FIFA Club World Cup may not have been best practice, but they are also not getting the best out of their expensively assembled squad.

Romelu Lukaku is the new Fernando Torres in so far that expectations exceed the reality of the player. Lukaku may not suit the Chelsea style or the players he has around him – certainly he doesn’t seem mobile enough – but surely this was known to the club before they signed him? For the past two years, Chelsea have been looking for a striker to finish all the good work and dominant possession they enjoy, but Timo Werner hasn’t entirely worked out and Lukaku seems an uncomfortable fit. That’s well over £ 120 million spent on misfit forwards. Admittedly, injuries have got in the way but Lukaku doesn’t look happy and contented.

Fortunately, they have a deep squad and a plethora of midfielders who can score goals, hence they have already netted as many as they did in the Premier in 2020-21 (58). They’ve conceded only 23 goals. However, Chelsea’s goalscoring rate has been in decline for the past few years: in 2017, their last title win, they scored 85, but a year later, they dropped by 23 goals to 62. Last season’s 58 was the lowest of the Abramovich era.

Lukaku’s staccato campaign compares woefully with the post-Ronaldo career of Benzema. He’s scored 124 goals in 183 games for Real Madrid since CR7 moved off to Turin and then back to Manchester. There’s even talk of him winning the Balon d’Or. 

But he’s not the only veteran enjoying an Indian Summer at Real: Luka Modric should be on the punditry bandwagon by now (he’s actually older than Wayne Rooney), but he’s still controlling the midfield. At some stage, Real are going to have to rebuild and replace their old-timers, but they could get one last Champions League victory out of them.

Bizarrely, nobody has really forecast a Real victory in Paris, they were meant to be past it, no longer a contender against the might of the Premier League. They may be 12 points clear in La Liga, but they recently lost 4-0 at home to a transitioning Barcelona. But the comeback against Paris Saint-Germain, thanks to Benzema, hinted there might be one last hurrah from their old boys. And quite typically, Real is one of the few clubs where a successful season can end with the manager getting his marching orders. Carlo Ancelotti’s future is far from certain, but you’d never guess it from his demeanor.

Thomas Tuchel, too, may find a little pressure if the season fizzles out of control, although the zero tolerance approach to trophyless seasons may have ended with the departure of Abramovich’s regime. Tuchel has admitted that on the face of it, the tie with Real Madrid is all but over, an honest assessment of the situation if ever there was one.

Nobody knows how strong Chelsea’s spending power will be when they are taken over. One thing is sure, mass-spending to bolster the squad on an annual basis will be no more. If the new ownership is American, the strategy will be far different from Abramovich’s extreme generosity, the investors will surely expect a return. It is unlikely Chelsea will be as competitive in the transfer market, although they will still be among the leading clubs. They will probably fall further behind Manchester City and possibly Liverpool. Already it is hard to see where the next Premier League title is coming from, Chelsea’s near-term ambition may be to stay in the top three or four.

It may be too early to tell for sure, but Chelsea’s defeat at the hands of Real Madrid may be a signpost that the current glorious era is coming to an end. Their last title was in 2017, so if they win in 2023, it will be a six-year stretch, the longest since they won their first Premier League in 2005. They over-performed in 2020-21 in securing the Champions League, even the most myopic fan would admit they were surprise winners. They had a reasonable run to the last eight this time, but the way they were swept aside by Real Madrid put them firmly in their place. 

And that place will still be among Europe’s elite, so this was not a doomsday defeat and the change of ownership does not warrant apocalyptic skies over London SW6. When Chelsea started sweeping-up in the early years of Abramovich’s reign, the snipe from opposing fans was they would slump dramatically should the mysterious Russian walk away. That was never going to be the case, because the club is now a prime asset in today’s football market. Similarly, there will be other glorious eras at Chelsea, even if they are not as prolonged.

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