“Today I see everything negative.”
There is no-one better or more equipped at Chelsea to assess just how good this season has been for the club than their captain Cesar Azpilicueta. Granted emotions were running high when the 32-year-old spoke to reporters at Wembley Stadium, coming within a few hours of his penalty miss which contributed to Chelsea’s shoot-out defeat to Liverpool in the FA Cup Final.
To provide some balance to the doom and gloom the veteran defender did also stress that this season Chelsea had won the FIFA Club World Cup for the first time in their history, as well as the UEFA Super Cup for the first time since 1998.
But his instinct to sound rather bleak overall is the right one, even if his stance softens over the next few days. Azpilicueta is the last link in the senior squad to the club’s ruthless era, when winning was a habit and to be expected. It was not the occasional experience.
That is not to say the cabinet hasn’t had some significant additions in recent years. Most of the current group were responsible for lifting the Champions League last May.
But when Azpilicueta joined Chelsea a decade ago, he arrived at a club where reaching domestic finals meant you were virtually guaranteed a winners’ medal. They reached seven EFL and FA Cup finals between 2005-12, all but one were held at Wembley, and lifted six trophies. Three Premier Leagues and the first Champions League were added in that period too.
That group had players who virtually always found a way to win on the big occasion, very talented but mentally tough men like John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba. Liverpool will remember the last two combining to great effect for the deciding goal on their previous visit to the FA Cup final in 2012.
Azpilicueta was part of the two championships that followed in 2015 and 2017, but Chelsea haven’t come close to finishing top in the last five years. During that relative drought, their fond regard for Wembley has ended too. Saturday’s defeat to Liverpool means they are the first club to lose three consecutive FA Cup finals. They have been beaten in four of their last five FA Cup finals (since 2017) and that damning statistic rises to six of the last seven if you include the EFL Cup final too. In other words, finishing second best is now a worrying habit with the current generation.
Anyone who witnessed their two losses to Liverpool, who also beat them in the EFL Cup final in February, will rightly sympathise with coach Thomas Tuchel’s assessment that they were unlucky to leave empty-handed both times. Even counterpart Jurgen Klopp agreed.
But outgoing defender Antonio Rudiger, who leaves for Real Madrid in the summer, knows there is more to it than that. “Personally for myself it’s the third time (I have lost an FA Cup final) so you can’t always say unlucky, unlucky, unlucky.
“At the end of the day it’s about winning, it’s not about (what it means for Chelsea) next season. The game was about today and it was there to take. Unfortunately we didn’t. It’s a difficult one to take for myself. These are questions sometimes we don’t have an answer for. I don’t have an answer for it.
“It’s been five years for me at Chelsea with ups and downs as normal. There were a lot of positive things, but that’s why I’m even more frustrated because I wanted to have a different ending.”
Chelsea and Tuchel can certainly argue that this season coudn’t have been any tougher. A gruelling schedule of 63 games ends next Sunday and their challenge on all fronts has been undermined by COVID and injuries. There were more fitness issues against Liverpool with Kai Havertz and Timo Werner not able to feature. Key midfielders Mateo Kovacic and N’Golo Kante did get on the pitch but were nowhere near 100 per cent. But Liverpool had problems of their own with Mohamed Salah and Virgil van Dijk both sustaining problems which forced Klopp to substitute them, while Fabinho wasn’t able to be selected at all. Klopp’s side have played just one game fewer and still found a way to come out on top. They have become what Chelsea used to be.
Obviously, Chelsea operating under sanctions for the last few months and the sales process has provided a mentally draining distraction. But the club, particularly the soon-to-be new owners — Todd Boehly’s consortium — will be making a mistake if they don’t see the bigger picture here. They must examine the pattern developing over the last five years, not just the trials and tribulations experienced during the past one.
This is a squad that needs refreshing, which needs an injection of new blood, new characters in defence, midfield and attack if they are to be able to win, not just compete for, silverware. There are real gems like Mason Mount and Reece James to build a team around, while they have a quality manager in Tuchel.
Boehly, who was pictured by one fan leaving Wembley, isn’t going to be able to fund Chelsea in the transfer market like outgoing owner Roman Abramovich did over the past 19 years. But his consortium haven’t acquired them to become also-rans either.
Chelsea played well against Liverpool four times (twice in the Premier League as well) and effectively drew all four. But the 16-point gap which exists between them in the Premier League exposes the general gulf in quality between the two squads.
“I think it (Chelsea’s four games against Liverpool) shows that we are able to compete against one of the best teams in England and the world,” Azpilicueta says. “They are in the final of the Champions League, but it also tells the truth that we are not consistent enough during the season to challenge for the Premier League.
“I’m not anyone to say what the club needs to do (in the market). (But) After the end of the season, we have to analyse what we have done good and where we can improve. We are Chelsea, a club that wants to win everything. Of course, when finishing third (they need a maximum of two points from the last two games to guarantee it), you want to finish higher and challenge for every trophy. This is how we have acted in every single season. It’s not going to change. As a group, we want more.”
Chelsea thought the acquisition of Romelu Lukaku for a club-record £97.5 million last summer would provide the missing piece in their pursuit of Manchester City and Liverpool. The kindest way of putting it is to say it hasn’t paid off yet, but the hard work to bridge the divide to the elite seems like it is only just beginning.
(Photo: Andrew Kearns – CameraSport via Getty Images)