We always knew this summer was going to be important for the future of Chelsea Football Club. Despite winning the European Cup last season, the two years since Carlo Ancelotti have been sacked have been disappointing. The team has been evicted from the 'title challengers' tier that we used to occupy, and are now having to 'battle' for the top four. Worse, we're being told we should be content should it come to pass that we beat out one of Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur to qualify for the Champions League.
This is nonsense. Chelsea are one of three teams with an extended run challenging at the top of the Premier League table, and falling off the pedestal, while understandable, is not acceptable. We've seen Arsenal's standards slip ever-lower since their early-00s peak, but unlike the Gunners, the Blues have enough money (and willingness to spend) that they should be able to arrest any decline.
Once a team has fallen, monetary considerations means that it becomes much more difficult to re-establish themselves at the very top, and with Chelsea wobbling this summer's always been of critical importance. Whomever succeeds Rafa Benitez at the helm of the club will have to turn our fortunes around very, very quickly.
But it's definitely not all doom and gloom at Stamford Bridge. We've actually got a better chance of winning the title next season than we have in the past few years. If we play this summer right, Chelsea can catapult themselves back to the top of the Premier League.
As a certain Manchester United-supporting colleague of mine often points out, the Blues are the English club with the strongest foundation for long-term success. Having phased out Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard and John terry, their key players are relatively young, and Chelsea's loanees are the envy of Europe's elite, let alone England's.
And the senior squad isn't as far behind the likes of United or City as results might make it seem. While there are obvious holes that need to be addressed, the simple truth of this season is that Chelsea have rather hideously under-performed, as they have since the final third of Carlo Ancelotti's tenure. The Blues can't kill off minnows and struggle to hold leads, which is an indictment of poor management more than anything else.
Even the holes are a positive sign. As any student of squad construction can tell you, it's significantly easier to upgrade a squad with obvious problems than one which has 'merely' good players everywhere. That's why, for instance, Southampton will probably survive this season and Reading will be back in the Championship. The Saints had a Premier League calibre attack and a bobbins defence; Reading were merely a good Championship side everywhere. Last year's problems enabled Southampton to be better than the Royals despite comparable resources.
That's true of Chelsea as well. There are glaring holes in the midfield. There are long-term issues in defence. But that means that spending on an elite player to fix those problems constitutes a huge upgrade. This is something that a team built like City can't do -- spending a tonne of money on a position you're already good (which is everywhere, for City) at doesn't help you as much as paying a lot of money in an area where you have problems.
Assuming Chelsea qualify for the Champions League, the Blues will have money to spend and a new manager to bring in. Meanwhile, the Manchester sides are going to find things harder going. City's squad, as mentioned above, is difficult to upgrade without spending ever-sillier amounts of cash, while United are taking a huge hit with the loss of Sir Alex Ferguson. No matter how good David Moyes is (and I do question the appointment of someone whose main qualities appear to be 'Scottish and has been in one place for a while'), there is no way he can match Ferguson's success at Old Trafford.
A wasted summer would put Chelsea in fairly serious long-term trouble. That's been obvious all season -- no matter how good the youngsters and prospects are, a team this big needs Champions League money to succeed and cannot afford to fall into the race for fourth place every season. But conversely, it also presents a huge opportunity. Spend wisely and bring in the right manager and suddenly a fifth title becomes a very real target.