What happened appears simple to explain: the bounce they got from sacking their unpopular coach has worn off.
After parting ways with the clueless Andre-Villas Boas, Chelsea looked like a team with a point to prove — and they did in the Champions League round of 16. Then, in a thrilling, inspirational 4-1 extra-time win, the so-called “old guard” took control of a rudderless club and throttled a dynamic Napoli side that had seemed to be cruising into the next round. Didier Drogba had one of the games of the season, scoring once, setting up another and working tirelessly at both ends. More remarkable perhaps was the play from John Terry, who managed to keep his porous defense from coughing up goals and then was seen directing traffic from the sidelines after he had to be removed.
That now looks like a one-off. Since then, the Blues have been sputtering and the old guard has looked simply old. The scoreline against City doesn’t reflect the fact that they scored against the run of play and their result at home to Spurs also doesn’t fully capture their malaise.
Frank Lampard was uncharacteristically blunt in an interview broadcast by the club’s own TV channel, saying after the Spurs game, “we’re not as good as we used to be. We used to have a fortress here and for whatever reason, we’re just not doing it.”
Petr Cech was even more withering, admitting that if Chelsea cannot right the ship, they not only will be in danger of missing out on Europe’s biggest competition next season, but of falling in the immediate future to a tough Portuguese team that has taken several big scalps already this season.
The Eagles topped a group stage section that included Manchester United and Basel. They held the Red Devils to two score draws back to back and are also unbeaten in ten games at home in Europe. Above all, they boast a fluid passing game that English teams often don’t match up well with.
Yet, like Chelsea, Benfica have suffered a dip in form of late. Atop the table not so long ago, they allowed a five point lead to evaporate and now sit second. They also showed vulnerability in the knockout round when they unexpectedly struggled against a Zenit St. Petersburg side that was missing its most dynamic and meaningful player, Danny. While Benfica were ultimately able to close out the tie with ease on their home soil, there are indeed cracks for Chelsea to exploit.
Unfortunately, Chelsea have two key issues. The first is that their defending is atrocious at times, with large gaps for folks like Alex Witsel and Rodrigo to run right into. Chelsea’s also failing to throttle games in midfield. The days of their lock-tight game management seem to be a distant memory.
The new boys simply haven’t done enough, either. Aside from Daniel Sturridge — who has been a sparkplug for Chelsea up top — the boys from the Bridge still rely too heavily on an increasingly fragile set of old-timers that look their age.
Newcomers like Gary Cahill and David Luiz have failed to justify their expense. And while Lampard and Drogba ooze pride, they look increasingly gassed. Michael Essien, in particular, looks a shadow of his former self in a midfield that looks increasingly chaotic. Only the classy Juan Mata stands out, while Fernando Torres has yet to fully convince us that he is back to form.
Moreover, Chelsea’s confidence seems to be at ebb tide. Though Roberto di Matteo was able to get the lift that usually accompanies the sacking of a reviled manager, he has not been able to alter the fact that many of his players simply aren’t good enough. Blues fans will argue that they are the only English team left in Europe, but the fact is that England’s teams are in decline as well, blighted by a combination of over-spending, over-use and poor technical preparation.
The bottom line here is that this is a major test for a team that’s had to go to the well one too many times. Chelsea have the benefit of the home leg return match, but Benfica will be looking to prove that this appearance — their first in six years at this stage — is not a fluke.
Benfica-Chelsea is live on FOX Soccer with pregame coverage beginning at 2 P.M. ET. Every Champions League game is shown across the FOX Family and you can always follow all the action away on FOX Soccer or via Twitter at our @FoxSoccerTrax feeds.