September 9, 2012. Chelsea are facing Juventus in the group stages of the Champions League and lead 1-0, thanks to a diminutive Brazilian named Oscar who made a £19 million move from Internacional in the summer. As far as games go, this one is fairly ordinary, with Chelsea cruising along.
In the 32nd minute, the young #11 decides to make his arrival known to all. Receiving an Ashley Cole pass facing away from goal, he gives it a deft touch to nutmeg Andrea Pirlo before turning and curling a perfect corker into Gigi Buffon's top left corner. Buffon lies on the ground, stunned. Pirlo looks on in disbelief. And Oscar wheels away to celebrate. Stamford Bridge, it seems, has found a new hero.
It's easy to forget now, but there was a time when Oscar seemed destined to be Chelsea's new hero. A perfect, prototypical #10 who was potent in attack and energetic in defense, he seemed the perfect fit to anchor a Chelsea attack for years going forward. With Mata frozen out by the Special One early on and Hazard seemingly dead-set on one day embracing the glitz and the glamor of the Bernabeu, Oscar seemed like the one to stay for a decade. Anointed as the new Lampard (boosted by his switch to the #8 shirt when the veteran departed for NYCFC/Manchester City), he was the new hope of the future.
It wasn't unwarranted, however; the starlet was legitimately brilliant at times. A 35-yard volley against Shakhtar Donetsk, a match-winning performance against Southampton with a goal and two assists; he was, at times, everything that fans could have hoped for in a #10 and more. Embodying Mourinho's ethos of two-way team play, the Brazilian fit so seamlessly into the first eleven that, when asked whether Chelsea's Back-to-back Player of the Year in Juan Mata had really lost his place to Oscar, Mourinho bluntly responded "Yes. And I prefer to build my team around Oscar."
Build a team around Oscar. From a manager who won nearly everything there was to win across 3 different leagues; from a manager who was Chelsea's most successful in history; from a person who was arguably the biggest non-Messi/Ronaldo name in the game, this was as good as it could get. It wasn't really surprising to many, however; while Hazard seemed like the player with the highest ceiling, there was always a sense that Oscar was the engine that linked the attack and the midfield and allowed the team to function as a whole.
Of course, it was never all sunshine and roses. There were far too many times when he would float out of games; too many times when his silky passes would vanish and his touch would desert him; too many times when he looked lost. He'd start seasons playing at the level of Suarez and end them playing like Fellaini. He was almost as maddeningly inconsistent as he was brilliant, and yet, it wasn't entirely unexpected, given his age and ridiculous international workload. He was, after all, in his early twenties, and it wasn't as if Lampard became a dynamo before he turned 25. While he was still far from the finished product, his immense skill, when on full form, was breathtaking. The only thing more tantalizing than his talent itself was the notion that he hadn't even hit his peak or found consistency just yet. But it only seemed a matter of time, and if he could put it all together, you sensed Chelsea might have something truly special.
November 1, 2014. Chelsea play QPR in the Premier League, aiming to continue their unparalleled dominance at the start of the 2014-15 season. Tied 0-0 in the 31st minute, Cesc Fabregas dishes a pass in front of Oscar, who cuts in from the right wing at an impossible angle. With one swift motion, he strikes the ball with the outside of his foot and somehow curls it in towards the goal past a bewildered Robert Green. With the win that this Roberto Carlos-esque goal would help ensure, Chelsea find themselves nine points clear at the top of the table. Oscar has started the season like a man on fire again, but this time, it seems different. The team is clicking like never before, and it seems as if he's finally turned the corner. Wins flow freely with Oscar taking the league by storm, with match-winning performances against Newcastle United and Swansea City following. Inconsistencies be damned, Chelsea seem to have finally found their attack engine for the next decade. Top of the league and having a laugh, and one of the biggest reasons for it is Oscar dos Santos Emboaba Junior.
Of course, if that remained the situation, we wouldn't be speaking about Oscar leaving for Shanghai for £60 million this January. The harsh reality was that this was as good as it ever got for him. A couple of months after that game, Chelsea were beaten 5-3 by Spurs at White Hart Lane and Mourinho's brief-lived experiment with an expansive, attacking team ended. Oscar's performances tailed off again, though not quite to the same extent as before, and Chelsea turned to tight defense to wrap up a title in the second half of the season. Another season ended with individual disappointment. Oscar didn't seem much closer to putting together his immense array of attacking talents. If not now, when?
Shortly after that, the Brazilian was injured early in the 2015-16 season and Chelsea's season, perhaps not coincidentally, never got off the ground. Mourinho was gone by December and Oscar ground his way through, playing like the entire year was the second half. Whispers began about his status and desire, and for the first time, Chelsea fans began to agree. After four years, maybe it was time to move on.
There were false dawns, as always. The two-goal performance against Sunderland right after Mourinho was sacked and the positive performances at the start of Conte's 4-3-3 experiment early in the semester all served to give hope that he'd finally found the elusive streak of consistency. It never happened, however, and as Chelsea's 2016 season began to go pear-shaped again after losing 3-0 to Arsenal, Conte ditched the standard formation for an unorthodox 3-4-3. He also ditched Oscar. And as Chelsea started to win more and more, he started to play less and less.
In the end, it's part of what led to his departure for Shanghai. And while we may see him back in Europe at some point, it almost certainly won't be with Chelsea. Yet, it's impossible to fault the club; £60 million is a price at which few players remain unsellable, and the ones that do prove their worth time and again when they step out on the pitch. Oscar is not one of those players, and, even though he's only 25, the feeling now is that he may actually never be.
What kills us is that he could have been.