Chelsea have lost focus at a critical point of the season, and they can't rely on anyone else bailing them out in their Champions League final.
There must now be concern that Thomas Tuchel has arrested the slide at Stamford Bridge, but he has not necessarily vanquished the brittle underside of the team that was left by Frank Lampard. That is not a failure that can be laid at the feet of the German yet, given he has barely had half a season to work with his new squad, but it is nevertheless a big worry given the last match of the season.
In a week’s time they will face Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. This is a City side that put right their early-season missteps and became a relentless machine as the league title came into view. They were not cowed by the pressure put on them by a demanding schedule, and they grew into their season. When players like Raheem Sterling dipped below the required standards, they had both Ferran Torres and Phil Foden to not just step in to cover, but to offer something even better to their manager and teammates.
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Once again, it is the problems in the defence that have cost Chelsea. Thiago Silva is the obvious first choice, but to paraphrase any modern politician, there are legitimate concerns about any partner who might be brought in alongside him. Kurt Zouma, Andreas Christensen and Antonio Rudiger are all decent enough defenders to use over the course of a league season, but against the most sophisticated forward line in Europe there is every chance they will struggle.
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In order to keep a tight line at the back, they will need focus for all of the match, which is exhausting at the best of times. To do so after the end of a coronavirus-blighted season, one with the emotional low point of a managerial exit and then with the demands of impressing a new coach, will not be easy. And looking at Chelsea’s results since the Champions League semi-final success against Real Madrid, it appears they have lost their ability to concentrate.
In truth, they have only played well once since that win, when they overcame Leicester City to get over the disappointment of the FA Cup final, but it is the Wembley showpiece that represents hints of trouble. They should have beaten Leicester given the superior players and resources at their disposal, but instead they were unable to register a goal, and could not keep things tight enough to grind out a result in extra time or penalties.
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After the league win against Brendan Rodgers' team and with Liverpool’s resurgence, the players should have kept their sights on the league games still to come. They failed. They lost at home to Arsenal, a mediocre team this season, before the final, and now have dropped all three points at Aston Villa. Their opponents had nothing to play for but looked far more up for it than the Bues. Chelsea’s players were playing for Champions League bonuses and a place in the Champions League final, but that was not enough to raise their game.
Tuchel is clearly an impressive manager, and he has a track record of success at Borussia Dortmund and then Paris Saint-Germain, but there is something that should give City encouragement, and Chelsea pause. When PSG took themselves to the final against Bayern Munich in last season’s Champions League, they put in an honorable performance, but thereafter they could not rouse themselves for the start of the next season. Of course, Tuchel can point towards an underwhelming transfer window, which was nevertheless understandably held back due to the uncertainty and damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic. But Mauro Icardi, Danilo Pereira and Rafinha, joined by Sergio Rico, are a better transfer window than many other sides enjoyed. Certainly it should have been enough to keep them ahead of the rest of Ligue 1’s chasing pack. Instead, domestic underperformance and behind-the-scenes ructions saw him turfed out.
It is by no means a definitive quality of a Tuchel side, but perhaps the German has to show he is a manager capable of maintaining a relentless determination in his players once they either experience the heartbreak of defeat, or are given the chance to make history. The same can't be levelled at Guardiola, and leaves City the heavy favourites at a Chelsea team with a questionable mentality.
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