Tuesday 25 September 2018

Abramovich at a crossroads and in need of miracle

Chelsea's Eden Hazard runs with the ball during the UEFA Champions match aganst Barcelona. Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images
Chelsea's Eden Hazard runs with the ball during the UEFA Champions match aganst Barcelona. Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images

Matt Law

For Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, Barcelona have always represented the dream. He has craved the spirit, the style and the success. But, despite a spirited effort in the Nou Camp, the Champions League last-16 defeat to Barcelona leaves the Russian at a crossroads.

Does he go again and try to make up the ground on Barca? Or does he accept that, while Chelsea can still look forward to triumphant seasons and trophies, the ultimate dream will prove to be a fantasy?

Asking former Barcelona manager Luis Enrique, or anybody else, to replace head coach Antonio Conte would certainly not solve Chelsea's problems on its own.

The questions and challenges do not only apply in Europe, either.

Under Pep Guardiola, Manchester City have brought the Nou Camp spirit to the Premier League and there are already fears they could dominate for as long as the Spaniard remains in England.

Whether it has been trying to appoint Guardiola, flirting with the idea of attempting to sign Lionel Messi or trying to recreate La Masia with the finest academy in England, Abramovich has used Barcelona as the blueprint.

Success

Despite the failure to land Guardiola, Messi, or bring through a group of youngsters, Abramovich has enjoyed some success at trying to create his very own Catalan kings over the years.

Most striking was Chelsea's elimination of Barcelona in 2012 on their way to winning the Champions League.

But, despite the five Premier League titles, Chelsea have not been able to dominate English football in the way Barca have, for long periods, stayed at the top of La Liga - and in the time it has taken for Abramovich's club to lift the Champions League trophy once, Barcelona have won it four times.

The last time Chelsea really took on Barcelona and the rest of Europe in the transfer market was during the summer after their Champions League success, when they landed Eden Hazard - the Belgian groomed to become their very own Messi. But while Hazard has undoubtedly been a superb signing, there is a growing acceptance the 27-year-old will never hit the heights of Messi at Stamford Bridge.

Messi took his Champions League goals tally to 100 by twice putting the ball through the legs of Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, while Hazard failed to add to his total of just eight in the competition and did not even complete the 90 minutes.

The task for Conte was highlighted by the fact he selected Olivier Giroud to play in the middle of his front three to help afford Hazard the freedom he so enjoys.

As experienced and capable as Giroud is, Conte was relying on a striker who had spent the first half of the season on Arsenal's bench and was viewed as their man for the Europa League.

Giroud had scored against Bate Borisov in Belarus for Arsenal, but going up against Barcelona in the Nou Camp with Chelsea having to score was a completely different task and he was eventually replaced by Alvaro Morata.

Chelsea, more than any other club, have been able to get over setbacks by quickly lifting trophies again and this defeat must be qualified against the fact they could still finish this season with the FA Cup and a place in next season's Champions League.

But there is much uncertainty around Stamford Bridge ahead of an anticipated summer of change. Conte will most likely be replaced, while Chelsea still need to appoint a technical director.

The next head coach and technical director will have to be particularly persuasive to convince Hazard and Courtois, who are both targets of Real Madrid, to stay if Chelsea do not improve on their fifth place in the Premier League and slip into the Europa League.

And if Abramovich continues his recent policy of refusing to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Barcelona in the transfer market, then it may take more than one miracle in the summer window to drag Chelsea back up a level or two. Reality threatens to bite. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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