It felt like the end of an era at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night and Branislav Ivanovic, senior Chelsea player and captain-in-waiting, almost admitted as much after their Champions League elimination at the hands of Paris Saint-Germain. “This dream is over for the moment,” he said, reflecting on the fact that his side will almost certainly not be playing in Europe’s elite club competition next season.
There are still nine Premier League games left to play, but Chelsea will need to make up a 10-point gap to fourth-placed Manchester City – or 12 points to Arsenal, if City win their game in hand – if they are to play in Europe’s top competition next season. They will also need to leapfrog Southampton, Stoke City, Liverpool, Manchester United and West Ham United on the way.
Chelsea not being in the Champions League will feel like quite a jolt for a club who have excelled in the competition ever since Roman Abramovich took over almost 13 years ago. They have won it once, in 2012, were beaten finalists in 2008, and lost five other semi-finals along the way. Chelsea are a near permanent presence in its latter stages, far more so than any other English team given Manchester United’s post-Sir Alex Ferguson dip.
But next season they will not be there. It will be the first time Chelsea have not played in the Champions League since 2002-03. Then, a Chelsea team featuring John Terry and Frank Lampard were knocked out of the first round of the Uefa Cup by Viking Stavanger.
Every senior player who has signed for Chelsea since Abramovich’s takeover in the summer of 2003 has done so with the clear intention of playing in and competing for the Champions League. Ivanovic is no different and he admitted after Wednesday’s 2-1 defeat by PSG what a blow this was for the players who had made it their ambition.
“I think all of us are very, very disappointed,” Ivanovic said. “This is a huge competition, the competition that all of the players want when they come to this club; it was one of the reasons, to play Champions League, to dream about that. I think this dream is over for the moment.”
The big question for Chelsea is how to rekindle that dream. Clearly this is going to be a very transitional summer, with a new manager and new signings. Every few years Chelsea undergo a relaunch, as they did in 2013 with Jose Mourinho, 2011 with Andre Villas-Boas, 2009 with Carlo Ancelotti or 2008 with Luis Felipe Scolari. This summer, seemingly with Antonio Conte, they will do the same.
Five who face summer exit…
Now 35, he has struggled with injury this season. Announced in January that his contract would not be renewed in the summer.
Not played a single minute for Chelsea owing to his lack of fitness. Brazilian loanee set to be sent back to Corinthians.
Another loan signing who has struggled to make an impact at Chelsea, scoring just once – back in August. Out since October.
Looked imperious in midfield last season after returning to the club, but the Serb has under-performed this winter.
John Obi Mikel
Approaching a decade at Chelsea. Was frozen out by Jose Mourinho but brought back in midfield by Guus Hiddink.
… and one who wants to go Eden Hazard
Inspired the title triumph last season only to lose his way badly. Without a league goal since May.
The thornier question concerns the players. This squad was expensively assembled, mainly between 2012 and 2014: Eden Hazard, Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa, to name but three, signed for a combined £91 m in that time. Mourinho won the Premier League title last May but did not know what to do next, and now the squad looks in need of serious improvement. The technical gulf between them and PSG on Wednesday was glaringly obvious.
There will certainly be changes, and Chelsea need quality in midfield and at centre-back more than ever. The current players will certainly have to raise their level, too, as Ivanovic recognised.
“The squad that we have now, I think that we have the quality to play Champions League,” he said. “This season we didn’t do what everyone expected of us, we have disappointed ourselves as well. So we have to stand up, we have to look to be at the level of last season, and to deserve to play Champions League again.
“We have to work very hard to come back to the level where we can play Champions League and enjoy Champions League again. Sometimes when you miss something, you know how big the thing is.”
These Chelsea players will miss those big nights next year, their final season at Stamford Bridge in its current form. The new manager will help, as will new signings, but Ivanovic owned up to the fact that those who remain will have to deliver far more, for far longer.
“This is a moment when everybody has to be really motivated,” he said. “This motivation cannot be just for the next couple of months, it has to be for a long, long, long period. We need to work really hard to be back on the top level, because Champions League is the top level.”
This will almost certainly be the worst season of the Abramovich era, but there is still one trophy left in play. Chelsea go to Goodison Park tomorrow, competing for a place in the FA Cup semi-finals.
“We have to wake up and think about Everton,” Ivanovic said. “This is our chance to win a trophy this season.
“We are all here, these performances and these players, have always to be in the end to win trophies.”