Will Chelsea suffer a long absence from the Champions League?
Many Chelsea fans felt inevitably morose after the final whistle blew against Real Madrid on Tuesday night.
Not only had their last hope of Chelsea salvaging a terrible season by lifting a third Champions League trophy disappeared, but so had any prospect of seeing the club play in the competition next season. They had to win it to be competing again next year because qualifying via a top-four finish in the Premier League is looking very unlikely. They trail Newcastle, who are fourth in the Premier League, by 17 points with only seven matches remaining and they currently sit 11th in the table.
As fans walked away from Stamford Bridge, the more pessimistic among them fear that Chelsea will now spend years in the wilderness, watching the Champions League from afar.
Given how poor this season has been, with more defeats (18) than wins (15) in all competitions, their concern is valid. After being a consistent presence in the competition for the past two decades — from 2003-04 onwards Chelsea’s only absences have been in 2016-17 and 2018-19 — there are no guarantees of a quick return.
Just look at how long some other established names in Europe have been out of the Champions League. London rivals Arsenal are a prime example. They played in the Champions League for 19 consecutive seasons but have not participated in the last six. That poor run will come to an end in 2023-24 as it is a near certainty that they will finish in the top four even if they don’t win the title.
Liverpool, who have won the European Cup/Champions League more times (six) than any English club, have had periods in the doldrums too. They did not play in Europe’s premier club competition from 1985-86 until qualifying again in 2001-02 (the first six years were due to a ban following the Heysel Stadium disaster). They were also not involved from 2010-11 until getting back in for the 2014-15 season.
AC Milan have lifted the trophy on seven occasions and reached the semi-finals of this season’s competition, but they went seven years without playing the best of the best from the 2014-15 campaign to 2020-21.
The European Cup was renamed the Champions League in 1992-93 and Inter Milan, three-time winners, did not feature in the newly-named competition at all until 1998-99. There was another spell from 2012-13 to 2017-18 when they did not qualify. Borussia Dortmund — 2004-5 t0 2010-11 — have been absent too.
If it happened to those clubs, it can certainly happen to Chelsea. The standard of the competition at the top of the Premier League is arguably getting stronger. The current top four contains perennial qualifiers Manchester City as well as Arsenal, Manchester United and Newcastle United — teams who have all improved substantially. Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool are always in the mix and you would expect the latter to put in a better challenge in 2023-24. Then there are other clubs on the rise such as Aston Villa and Brighton & Hove Albion.
It is a problem that caretaker manager Frank Lampard, who will be replaced by a permanent manager in the summer, believes everyone connected to Chelsea should be prepared for. When asked by The Athletic whether he thinks Chelsea will be able to restrict their Champions League absence to one season and how important it is they do so, he replied: “I think the way that the Premier League is moving so fast, the landscape changes. To say that any given team has this divine right to be in the top four and in the Champions League, it’s tough.
“Manchester United have spent time out of the Champions League. Arsenal have spent time out of the Champions League. Lots of big clubs have. In this moment, to try and predict what is going to happen going forward — will it be good or bad — is pretty pointless.
“But I do think we can set the building blocks now to where we want to get to. I’m here for a reason, obviously, because this season being what it is and this role that I’m in, can I affect it in this period? Hopefully, yeah, but the bigger thing for the club will be that we want to get back to where we were.
“But the challenge is big. Every club is investing. Maybe some clubs are more stable than we are at the minute in terms of the squad. So I don’t think we can get ahead of ourselves in terms of moments like Real Madrid where there’s disappointment. I know what it takes to get back, from being here as a player for a long time and as a coach before in the Champions League. We have to set those standards high again and I keep saying the same stuff, but only the work of the group and having a clear direction from the group is the way. Let’s see it.
“In my next seven games, I will do my mini version of that. If the performance can rise, I think it will give the fans a good feeling and give us a good feeling in the summer and I think that’s as far as we can look.”
There are some causes for optimism regarding Chelsea’s ability to limit the damage. The summer will provide the chance to reset, to breathe after more than 12 months of extraordinary turmoil on and off the pitch.
Obviously, the choice of the new coach is vital, having seen Thomas Tuchel and Graham Potter depart within the space of seven months. The transfer window offers an opportunity to trim the squad of players who are not good enough and/or no longer want to be there, as well as ones whose contracts are running down. That should lead to a happier and more manageable squad.
The manner of Real Madrid’s 4-0 win on aggregate highlighted, if anyone needed reminding, where Chelsea are weakest. Of all the positions where they need top-class additions, it is at goalkeeper and centre forward. Thibaut Courtois and Karim Benzema outshone their Chelsea counterparts, just as they did when Real Madrid knocked the Premier League club out at the quarter-final stage 12 months ago.
In much the same way that the arrival of creative midfielder Cesc Fabregas and striker Diego Costa elevated Chelsea when they joined in the summer of 2014, getting a top keeper and frontman is sure to elevate the standards at Chelsea now. That is not to suggest they will win the title like in 2014-15, but it should lift them much higher up the table. There is quality to work with in that dressing room. However, these players need the confidence of knowing they genuinely have star men at both ends of the pitch.
There is another factor which provides encouragement. From 2024-25, the Champions League is expanding from 32 to 36 clubs. Two of the extra four places will be given depending on how well a country’s clubs have done in Europe the previous season (2023-24). So there is a possibility England will be given five places (the team finishing fifth in the Premier League will book a slot in the qualifying rounds). Chelsea supporters might find themselves in the rare position of cheering for their rivals in European competition because it will be to Chelsea’s benefit.
To help comply with Financial Fair Play rules and convince the very best players to join them, Chelsea need the Champions League. The sooner they end their self-inflicted exile, the better.
(Top photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images)