The end of Chelsea's road
A miserable season for Chelsea ended last night at the hands of arch-rivals Manchester United.
With their expulsion from the Champions League, a dynastic side that once towered over the league - winning three Premier League titles, three FA Cups, two league cups and only once since 2003 finished worse than second - looks to have reached the end of the road.
It’s a humbling, but hardly unexpected denouement for a team that must now make some painful decisions about its future. Simply, Chelsea must either rebuild from the ground up, or spend more and reload. Neither choice is appetizing.
What happened to Chelsea was the same thing that happens ultimately to every sports team: The players got old, and the newcomers have not been successfully integrated into the mix. And, although Chelsea looked like world-beaters in the first month of the season, their quick start masked the fact that this was a roster filled with players coming off spectacularly bad World Cup performances. That mental exhaustion was overlooked by many early on.
In retrospect, not enough was made of the fact that these folks returned to London as damaged goods. Drogba has never looked like the same player this season; Anelka always was unpredictable, but looked more reliable alongside the old Drogba; and anybody who did not realize how important Lampard was to his club had only to watch the Blues during his injury-enforced absence.
Terry, paradoxically, has actually resurrected his England career during a season when he no longer looks as certain for his club. The big center back has had to cover for the long-term absence of Alex (and his inconsistent replacements) but even Terry's huffing-and-puffing, say-the-right-thing style of leadership has not been enough to cover the cracks in the foundation.
There have been other problems, too: Ramires never fully established himself as a go-to midfielder; neither Michael Essien nor John Obi Mikel have been the expected forces; and the bench suddenly has looked weaker without Joe Cole, even if the man so often thought of as Chelsea's secret weapon has failed to demonstrate his ability to take on a starring role at Liverpool.
How much of this could have been predicted? More than you'd think.
In today's world of non-stop football, the post-World Cup hangover has proved the downfall of more than one side. Barcelona, frankly, looks like an exception in a year that has seen teams such as Bayern Munich, Inter Milan, and Lyon all hit speedbumps. Chelsea should have anticipated the strain on its resources and moved to strengthen the squad depth. Instead, they gambled that Michael Essien - who missed South Africa through injury - would come back as a controlling man in midfield and that youngsters like Josh McEachran were ready for prime time. Essien wasn't, and McEachran isn't.
Carlo Ancelotti will doubtless pay full price for not making all of the problems vanish, but the truth is that whoever is in charge of Chelsea next season faces a thankless task. There is no reason to believe that Manchester United or Arsenal will dip dramatically in form and the continuing ascendancy of Manchester City and Tottenham plus the rebirth at Liverpool means that it's at least a six-way fight for four Champions League spots, to say nothing of the league title itself.
Given those parameters, it's hard to see Chelsea taking the time for a build-from-the-bottom approach. Their supporters, who once were secure in the knowledge that the team always tried hard, entertained, but usually did not win, have been spoiled during the Roman Abramovich era. They now consider a season like this one a disaster: a decade ago they'd have been thrilled.
So figure that there will be a new manager, a summer buying spree and probably four to five new men in the starting eleven next August. And figure as well that the “new” Chelsea then won't look much different from today's Manchester City: a collection of new pieces searching for cohesion.
Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the UEFA Champions League and the Barclay's Premier League.