COMMENT: Can Chelsea ever become one of Europe's true giants?
Almost 13 years have passed since Chelsea set out on a mission to become the new kings of the Premier League and yet the club’s identity remains shrouded in uncertainty.
Antonio Conte will sweep into Chelsea this summer as the 10th permanent manager of the Roman Abramovich era at Stamford Bridge, yet there is a lingering sense that the current Italy national team boss will eventually go the same was as all those who went before him.
Optimism and exasperation have rarely been far away for Chelsea in the Abramovich era and now the process is starting all over again.
Abramovich’s tenure as Stamford Bridge Tsar may have gloriously delivered 13 major trophies, but the fragility of their place at the game’s top table has been highlighted in a season when every nightmare imaginable has invaded their kingdom.
Chelsea’s reclusive owner may have believed he had a right to expect continued success after his astonishing £1.04b of personal investment in his club since his arrival and yet the foundations that investment should have guaranteed are not established.
Commercial success has been a byproduct of Chelsea’s rise from a minnow to a giant on the world football stage and if you spend any time in London, there is a good chance you will see plenty of young kids wearing blue shirts with Terry, Fabregas, Hazard and Costa emblazoned on their shoulders.
Yet many observers continue to question how secure is this newly discovered supporter base might be?
These fans don’t tend to come from families who have a long history of supporting Chelsea and as former Blues manager Jose Mourinho once suggested, tourists help to fill the seats at Stamford Bridge and make up a very different type of support base compared to the long-established armies that have followed their London rivals Arsenal or Tottenham for decades.
When you attend a game at Stamford Bridge and witness dozens of these new ‘fans’ ignoring the action on the pitch for the entire 90 minutes and gluing themselves to football games on PlayStation computer consoles that are left on during the game, you wonder how devoted they will be to the Chelsea cause in the coming decades.
That is before we get to the players whose loyalty to Chelsea has been exposed as tenuous at best this season.
Last season’s Premier League kings have put up a pitiful defence of their title, with their current haul of 44 points some way behind the lowest total amassed by defending champions of yesteryear, with Blackburn’s haul of 61 points as they failed to back up their title winning season of 1995 not likely to be matched by Chelsea’s losers of 2016.
So what has gone wrong at Chelsea? It is hard to know where to start on that debate….
While Abramovich’s influence may have allowed Chelsea to become one of the game’s big-hitters, they will always be a haven for high profile players whose loyalty can only be bought for the right price.
As is the case at so many clubs these days, high profile players don’t arrive at Chelsea to fulfil a lifetime dream of wearing the famous royal blue shirt. Robbie Keane famously claims he has a dream to play for every club he plays for, but new faces at Stamford Bridge don't even pretend to pedal that nonsense.
Instead, Chelsea's big-money capture are keeping their blue flag flying high above their vast sprawling houses thanks to the huge wages on offer and this lack of passion for the club is a problem that has dogged the Blues for a decade a more.
Evidently, the desire of Diego Costa, Cesc Fabregas, Eden Hazard and the rest to fight for the Chelsea cause was not as deep rooted as their paymasters would have hoped and yet this is a byproduct of how this club has been set up.
Big clubs don’t collapse in the manner the reigning Premier League champions have done, but Chelsea are not a big club. They can’t be yet.
You cannot compare Chelsea to Bayern Munich, to Real Madrid, Barcelona or Manchester United, even if their trophies successes match those great clubs in recent years.
When your history of serial winning started just 12 years ago, it is impossible to claim you are a superpower of the game and that has been Chelsea’s problem during a period when as the leaches sucking on the club’s flesh have shown their true colours.
Even if Mourinho’s failure to control his players in the first half of this season was evidently at the root of their current slide, Chelsea’s problems are not restricted to the coaching set-up or even the players on the pitch.
Questions have to be asked about a player recruitment set-up led by Technical Director Michael Emenalo, whose position at the club should be under scrutiny after a lamentable couple of transfer windows.
Chelsea transfer guru Marina Granovskaia should also be under the spotlight for all the wrong reasons, with her failure to sign off on deals rumoured to be one of the reasons why Mourinho became disenchanted with his position at Chelsea.
Radamel Falcao, Alexandre Pato and Baba Rahman are some of the signings who have failed to spark at Chelsea under the Emenalo/Granovskaia “dream team”, while a host of top targets have failed to arrive despite the concerted attempted of Blues officials.
The unshakable status of Emenalo and Granovskaia as trusted aides of Abramovich may ensure that their positions are secure for the long-term, but you have to question whether a stable Chelsea can be engineered under Conte’s watch amid a set-up that appears to be fundamentally flawed.
Money can buy you instant success in this game, but it cannot purchase an identity that this club is still striving for.
Chelsea are desperate to find a soul to go with their manufactured success, but you wonder if they will every stumble across it.