Before the season started I wondered whether Jose Mourinho might place greater importance on Champions League success this term, having accomplished his initial goal of returning the west Londoners to domestic supremacy.
Tonight his team begin their European campaign with a home match against Maccabi Tel Aviv, and victory could hardly be more vital given the Blues’ struggles to reprise the form of a few months ago.
I don’t think Mourinho would admit it, but they are so far off the Premier League pace that the Champions League has probably been elevated even further in his thoughts.
It may sound like a bit of a cop-out but I know from experience that it’s true: it is far more difficult to defend a title than to win it, as Chelsea, who cantered to glory last year, are demonstrating. Everyone else raises their game against you, and Mourinho’s men look a couple of per cent short of the work rate needed to match opponents and allow their technical superiority to flourish.
No trained eye is needed to see certain shortcomings. From kick-off in Saturday’s 3-1 defeat at Everton it was the best part of 30 seconds before a Chelsea man made a tackle, when Pedro got a toe in. Prior to that, not one visiting player had laid a finger on an opponent. The Spanish newcomer is perhaps the only one in the team operating at the rate of knots you would expect.
Mourinho may say they deserve more that four points from their five league games to date, but they have been punished for average defending, no matter how ruthlessly teams have exploited that.
Football at the highest level is a psychological battle. It is about will to work. If you don’t win it’s not necessarily that you’re not trying, just that you’re not trying enough.
Chelsea started badly, drawing their opening game against Swansea at Stamford Bridge and, as many things in the game do, it has become a habit. It can become contagious, and the only way to get over the mental hurdle is to win.
On paper, Maccabi Tel Aviv are easy opponents and offer Chelsea a great opportunity to show what they can do. But it’s now a must-win game, and that brings its own pressure. The Israeli side will be organised and defensive and, should they need video instruction, are not short of examples of teams who have profited from that approach against the Blues in recent weeks.
I’m interested to see Mourinho’s team selection, having hinted that he will make changes. There has been no finger-pointing at Chelsea yet, but if he experiments with unusual line-ups then all of a sudden he’ll be the one whose reputation is at stake if they don’t come off.
The more changes he makes to his tean, the more the Portuguese will have his fingers crossed on the bench this evening.