How Champions League holders Chelsea lost their grip… and what lies in wait
22:49 GMT, 6 December 2012
It was about this time last year when Ashley Cole was embroiled in a rumpus in the tunnel after Chelsea had beaten Manchester City.
Among other things, the 31-year-old is said to have yelled: ‘Thursday Night, Channel 5’, in the general direction of Roberto Mancini and his players as they trudged back to the dressing rooms after defeat at Stamford Bridge.
Football has moved on. It is no longer on Channel 5, but the Europa League remains something of an insult to clubs with the unashamed ambition of Chelsea and City.
Transformation: Chelsea went from Champions League winners through to being knocked out in the first round (below)
It is an enduring embarrassment, a forfeit for failure and, in Chelsea’s case, a reminder that the European champions slumped at the first hurdle of their defence.
A further reminder of their triumph against Bayern Munich came as Didier Drogba hosted a dinner in London on Thursday in honour of his former team-mates’ Champions League victory in May.
Drogba presented old colleagues and backroom staff with commemorative rings, understood to have cost him around 800,000.
Fernando Torres was not there — it is thought he was attending his two-year-old son Leo’s birthday party — but his demeanour at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday would suggest he will have no great desire to appear in the Europa League either.
Chelsea’s appearance in that competition will be a source of amusement for rival fans and, if Cole is anything to go by, rival players, too. And it is a logistical hindrance.
Mancini will not miss the competition, especially when he considers Sunday, February 24, when Chelsea are due at the Etihad Stadium, three days after the second leg of their first Europa League tie.
Rafa Benitez will fret about freshness and fatigue and the impact this might have on the Barclays Premier League but Roman Abramovich expects to win every competition they enter. He will not be impressed if his team crash out quickly as Manchester City and United did.
Reminder: Didier Drogba's party on Thursday night saw the Champions League winners commemorated with rings
If they are able to lift the Europa League trophy, in Amsterdam in May, Chelsea will be in possession of both European cups for 10 days before the Champions League final. Such springtime fancies feel far off, however, in what is developing into a long and complex campaign, even by their own standards.
On Friday they head north for Saturday's game at Sunderland, a fixture the Premier League refused to reschedule. Then they fly directly to Japan for the FIFA Club World Cup.
They will return a week on Monday, two days before they tackle Leeds in a Capital One Cup quarter-final at Elland Road. When the Europa League resumes in February, it will be their eighth different competition of the season.
‘I’ve never been involved in so many games,’ said defender Gary Cahill.
‘It’s crazy really the amount of games you’re playing in the space of a month. The recovery time and everything else that goes with it is tough, I’m not going to lie.’
Somewhere amid this whirlwind, Benitez will attempt to make small adjustments and build upon the 6-1 win against Nordsjaelland, his first victory as Chelsea’s interim manager, albeit a rather hollow one since it was not enough to stay in the Champions League.
Gift: The rings Drogba gave out cost around 800k in total according to early reports
‘It’s hard for anyone to come in with the amount of games you’ve got,’ Cahill added. ‘Literally, you’ve got two days before the next game to put across your ideas and show the players what you are asking from them.
'One of those days is normally a recovery day. So it’s hard. If you had a Saturday-to-Saturday you might be able to spend time on the training ground and get plenty of ideas across.
‘But in the last four games we’ve become more organised and over time we’ll get the ideas and things will go OK.’
The Nordsjaelland romp ended a winless run of six for Chelsea but they have not won in the Premier League since they came from behind to beat Tottenham on October 20.
Winning at Sunderland suddenly seems vital if they are to be in sight of the Premier League summit when they return to the competition at home to Aston Villa, two days before Christmas.
Tough: Gary Cahill says playing so many games is testing the squad
The doomsday scenario is for the miserable league form to continue amid all other distractions and to finish, as they did last season, outside the top four.
Surely this is the key pitfall for Benitez to avoid, regardless of trinkets like the Club World Cup. Abramovich’s team-building programme will hinge upon an instant return to the Champions League.
Roberto Di Matteo confessed that Eden Hazard and Oscar would have moved elsewhere had Chelsea not won in Munich to give them the chance to defend their title at the expense of Tottenham, who finished fourth. It will be the same again this summer.
‘We can’t afford to give up many more points in the Premier League,’ said Cahill.
‘I don’t know what’s gone wrong. The players have been asking that question themselves and we don’t know really. Where do you point the finger
‘It’s the same group of players who started the season beating teams and scoring goals and keeping clean sheets.
‘There’s no reason why we can’t get back to that. We’ve been waiting for that win.’