Watching the Champions League final on Saturday and witnessing Real Madrid’s domination of six-time Italian champions Juventus, we were dealt a harsh reality. This Chelsea team, as fun as the season that just passed was, and as incredible as their achievements were, are some way off the pace when it comes to contending in Europe.
There’s no shame in admitting that. Juventus easily dispatched of any other side they came up against but when they faced off with Zinedine Zidane’s perennial European victors, they were outmatched and outfought. It showed just how far ahead Madrid are of the chasing pack. Many great teams have won the competition since its inaugural year as the Champions League in 1992, but only Real have been able to defend their crown. Winning two Champions Leagues in a row is historic, yet when you consider they’ve won three of the last four on offer, it seems almost normal. That is how good they are. This is the level Chelsea aspire to reach and the hard work begins now.
Despite the upheaval of the 2015-16 campaign, last summer was an easy one for the Chelsea board. They knew the squad size didn’t have to be too big and they could focus on three or four reinforcements to improve a team that finished tenth. A lack of Champions League football and a realistic approach in believing a league title was out of reach meant that £32m N’Golo Kanté was the most expensive recruit. All the club wished for in Antonio Conte’s first year was a return to the top four. The result was much more satisfying than expected, but now Roman Abramovich and his team have to make up for past mistakes.
Coming off the Premier League title win in 2015, Chelsea failed to make significant impact in the transfer window. Those in charge of transfers rested on their laurels, expecting similar results from a squad which stumbled to the finish line and departed the Champions League in the second round to 10-men PSG. More additions were needed than backup goalkeeper Asmir Begović, a shell of a struggling Falcao, the young Brazilian Kenedy, and a last-minute Pedro. The consequences were a dismissal of the club’s greatest manager and an embarrassing title defence.
This summer has to be different. Players such as Dani Alves and Romelu Lukaku have been linked, two players who would add a great deal of talent and depth to the squad. With Champions League nights returning to Stamford Bridge next season, four or five reliable squad players are needed if the club are to have any sort of positive impact in the tournament. Nathan Aké and Andreas Christensen are just two of the recent loan army stalwarts who must be given a chance to prove their worth while the likes of Cesc Fàbregas and Willian are too valuable to lose.
This side may have conquered England, but as seen in recent years, that provides very little indication as to how they’ll fare in Europe’s premier competition. The last time the Premier League champions went past the quarter final stage was in 2009 when Manchester United were outclassed in the final by Barcelona. It has become a common theme amongst reigning champions to rely on the same group of players to guide them through another year in hopes of similar success. In this day and age of heavy rotation and rest, that sort of thinking is outdated.
The performance by Real in Cardiff, and the overall meaning of their victory has sent a warning shot to those who hope to knock them off their perch in 2018. They find ways to win, even when they’re not playing particularly well; and when they do play well, not many teams have a hope of beating them. Real dominating the competition isn’t even really the problem for Chelsea. The concern lies in the fact that as good as the likes of Juventus, Atlético and Bayern Munich, they still failed to deny Madrid’s attempt at history. In order to compete with Real, Chelsea must first compete with those teams.
Chelsea and Conte have set their sights on Europe, which is the proper ambition to have. Chelsea belong in the Champions League, as Conte himself said many times over the past season. But to actually belong rather than just to make up numbers, to be able to compete at the highest level of club football again, a successful transfer window is needed, both in terms of incoming and outgoing players.