No team that loses to this Barcelona side should ever feel truly ashamed. Barcelona have faced 25 different clubs this season, and before Wednesday had beaten 24 of them; make that 25. Those of us who predicted a season of Real Madrid dominance in Spain, with Ernesto Valverde as a make-do option until someone better came along, now look very foolish indeed.
Chelsea did not play particularly poorly in the Camp Nou. The first half was sandwiched by mistakes from Thibaut Courtois and Cesc Fabregas, and there has been no better player in the history of the game at exposing and punishing mistakes than Lionel Messi. The ability to simultaneously create joy while sucking the joy out of an opponent leaves the neutral feeling giddy.
In between those Messi-inspired goals, Chelsea attempted to attack their opponents in a manner not seen against Manchester City. Willian was the best non-divine player across the two legs, while Marcos Alonso got forward with more regularity than is usual for an opponent in the Camp Nou. Chelsea could have conceded three more goals and still have retained more pride in their exit than Manchester United.
And yet, despite that positivity, there is still plenty of cause for Chelsea censure. While Tottenham can consider themselves unfortunate to draw Juventus after topping their group, Chelsea received their just deserts. Having thrashed Qarabag, beaten Atletico Madrid in Spain and held a two-goal lead against Roma at Stamford Bridge, Antonio Conte’s team were in charge of Group C. The sloppiness that led to Chelsea finishing behind Roma has haunted their entire season.
Barring an unlikely improvement in league form, Chelsea will not participate in the Champions League next season. They are four points behind Liverpool, but over their last ten league games have taken at least eight fewer points than any of the four clubs directly above them. This season has been petering out ever since it began, a nine-month detachment between manager and club.
The multi-million dollar question is to what extent Conte’s defeatist demeanour is responsible for Chelsea’s 2017/18 funk. In August, there was deserved sympathy after his superiors failed to land the quantity of players needed to cope with the added workload of Champions League football, nor the quality befitting of a Premier League champion. In Danny Drinkwater, Davide Zappacosta and Tiémoué Bakayoko, you can see Conte’s point.
Yet football management is rarely anything other than an imperfect world. Even at elite clubs, one of the key components is making the best of the hand you are dealt, even if there are precious few picture cards. In his constant barbs towards the club, public spat with Jose Mourinho and general ‘can’t do’ attitude, Conte has continuously eroded his goodwill. The poor hand has been played badly.
“It’s not important if one player is happy or not,” he said of Eden Hazard in January, Chelsea’s best player and most valuable asset. “I can be the Chelsea coach or not. Where is the problem?” was the shrugged assessment in February when his job was thought to be on the line.
“It is very important to have the coach and the club with the same ambition: to improve the team, to improve the idea of football, to improve the quality of your players,” was the dig ten days ago, accusing Chelsea of appointing a winner who they have treated as a loser. Every other week, the problems are detailed. Some of the press conferences are cringeworthy.
The build-up to the second leg brought its own example. “Don’t forget you are talking about a team with many players with great experience,” Conte said when asked about the links between Chelsea’s position and that of Juventus, who progressed after a first-leg draw at home. “We don’t have this experience and you have to build this experience over the years. Juventus showed great resilience, they suffered a lot and in the right mind they killed Tottenham.”
Barcelona are a far better opponent than Tottenham, but the argument was flimsy. Chelsea have two players remaining at the club who won the Champions League with Chelsea in 2012 (Gary Cahill and David Luiz). One has fallen from grace and the other has been frozen out by his manager. Pedro has won three Champions League titles. Cesc Fabregas has won a European Championship and two World Cups. Alvaro Morata has won two Champions League titles. Eden Hazard, Thibaut Courtois, Cesar Azpilicueta are all used to this stage. Experience is one thing Chelsea don’t lack.
What they might lack is motivation. Chelsea’s season did not break apart in Barcelona, but only because it was in several fragments already. Having lost eight league games, including five against non-top-six teams, Conte has allowed his own grievances to impact upon his mood. His mood has impacted upon his professionalism.
Those accusing Chelsea’s players of letting down their club over the last eight months would do well to wait until they are governed and motivated by someone who wants to be there. Footballers take their lead from the manager. Tell your best player that you don’t care if he’s happy, and he won’t be. Let the squad know you want better players, and they’ll quickly lose faith. Conte’s ‘can’t do’ management has generated ‘can’t do’ performances.