The Europa League was officially created in 2009 when UEFA rebranded and changed the UEFA Cup to be more like the Champions League, having already consolidated the Cup Winners’ Cup into it a decade prior.
This reshuffle created a unique situation so that when Chelsea won, so far, the only Europa League we’ve ever had the “honor” of contesting in 2013, the Blues became only the fourth team in history to have won all three UEFA competitions (CWC in 1971 and 1998, UEFA Cup/Europa in 2013, and of course the Champions League in 2012). Last year, Manchester United joined this “illustrious” group, which had already included Ajax Amsterdam, Bayern Munich, and Juventus. Since the Cup Winners’ Cup is not coming back — not enough money-potential in the format — this unique piece of history is unlikely to grow much, if at all, beyond the bounds of this quintet.
But trivia aside, the Europa League is not exactly something that Chelsea (or any other top team in Europe) strive for these days. Europe’s second competition is very much second-rate, seen more as a burden than a boon. When Mourinho Mk.II declared upon his arrival that winning the Europa League “would be a big disappointment,” we all nodded in agreement, just as when Conte did the same three years later. We want the Champions League, not the also-ran tournament.
Reality has a way of changing perspectives however. It did for Mourinho last season (his “treble”) and now Antonio Conte is singing the same song.
“I think that for a club like Chelsea, it is important to play in the Champions League and to play in the Europa League. We must be realistic to understand the reality.
Barring a miracle, Chelsea will be in the Europa League next season, and in the group stages of it for the first time ever (does this count as making history?). This is below the commonly accepted minimum expectation for any given Abramovich Era season, and for this reason, beyond any other reason or rumor, Conte may not be here next season.
Despite the reality of the Premier League, where six teams vie for four spots and even Manchester United can finish two seasons in a row below them, the fact of the matter is that Chelsea have not met minimum expectations. The person who takes the responsibility for that, rightly or wrongly, extenuating circumstances and realistic explanations notwithstanding, is the head coach.
There’s been plenty of talk all season about Conte’s supposed “negativity” and “defeatism”, but his pre-season message was in essence no different from the previous summer nor was it different from the messages delivered by his predecessor in his three pre-seasons in charge. That doesn’t mean Conte gave up or that he set the team up for failure. He implored for help in the transfer market and he made it clear repeatedly that everyone would have to give 120 per cent in order to even attempt to repeat last season’s heroics. You may not agree with his assessment, but there’s little benefit to be gained from blind optimism. The ability to look at the situation realistically should be a benefit among the coaching staff, and should be a requirement among their superiors.
Whether that’s the case among the club’s decision-makers, whether they can rise above the emotional and reactionary response will be revealed soon enough. Conte continues to talk as if he will be in charge next season.
Either way, there’s plenty of work to do, and plenty of room for improvement.
“It was my prediction [that we would struggle] and I now stop. Maybe next season, I will have another prediction that is better than this [season’s prediction]. I think that you become stronger after a defeat. When you win, you don’t see the real problems.
“I think that when you don’t win, you have a lot of strength to try to change your situation, to try to have a good answer. During a defeat it makes you stronger than weaker.”
“When you win, you don’t see the real problems” might as well be the motto of Chelsea Football Club at this point. We’ve seen that happen in 2010, in 2015, and 2017. And while, by definition, when you’re on top, the only way is down, the club have certainly shown a lot more motivation and desire to “change our situation” after poor seasons than good ones. Perhaps that’s natural. It is hard to change a good thing, which is why Conte also made it clear that we would have to be “very cold” in our decision-making after last season.
All that doesn’t and shouldn’t absolve Conte of his own failures, be they tactical, motivational, or behavioral. But in the grand scheme of things, Chelsea’s problems run deeper than just the identity and methods and public words of the head coach. Fixing those problems will take more than just changing the head coach again or even just signing a couple new players.
Could Conte be part of a potential solution? Most believe the situation to be beyond rescuing. Two-thirds of respondents in our latest poll want a change as well. But despite the non-stop media storm over his departure and replacement, Conte is almost angrily insistent that he wants to be part of the solution.
“I think now is not the right moment to speak about this topic [plans for next season]. The most important thing for us is to finish the season in the best possible way.
”To focus on the present and to go game-by-game. Then, if we arrive at the right moment, we will speak about the future.”
That future which includes catching the Manchesters and their vast resources. It could be an expensive undertaking.
“I think every team has to understand what is your target before the season starts, which is your target that makes you happy about your season.
“Then to understand at the end of the season whether you reach your target or not. The table is showing that now there’s a great gap with Manchester City. To speak about the gap between us and Manchester City now is not right. The most important thing for us is to focus on ourselves and finish the season in the best possible way.
”That must be our focus. Then we arrive in the right moment to think about the way we can work to reduce this gap.”
-Antonio Conte; source: Goal
Going into today’s match against West Ham, that gap is more like a chasm, a vertigo-inducing 28 points. If we want to reduce that significantly, then someone, somewhere needs to already have the scouting reports pulled, the bank account primed and the calculator warmed up. With or without Conte, Chelsea need to get busy this summer.