August 2012, and the start of a new Premier League season was a time of promise for Chelsea. After rounding off an improbable Champions’ League campaign by snaffling away the pot with the big ears from under the noses of Bayern Munich, to go along with the FA Cup, the club was very much on the up. The squad had been strengthened with the likes of Eden Hazard and Brazilian tyro Oscar, with promising full back Cesar Azpilicueta also captured.
Former player and hero of the hour Robbie di Matteo was at the helm, and all looked good in the Stamford Bridge garden. Sure, Drogba had gone, but although it was a parting tinged with sadness, it was also painted with glory. The season began brightly and after a couple of months Chelsea led the league by four points, and as Autumn set in all seemed well set. Sadly however, as this is Chelsea, hardly surprisingly, the fates then turned.
It’s hard to put your finger on the reason, but whatever it was, it’s left Chelsea today with only one opportunity for glory, and although the Europa League hardly registers on the radar of any club aspiring to be a member of Europe’s elite, bereft of any glory, winning the competition has taken on an importance far outweighing its prestige. It’s become a cup that Chelsea need – not want – to win. Sure finishing in the top four is massively important to the club, despite what Arsene Wenger may think, no trophy comes your way for that achievement.
With this in mind, it was interesting to see Benitez select the serially disappointing Torres for the Liverpool game last weekend, when surely Demba Ba was the logical choice. With the Senegal international cup-tied in the competition, it seems inevitable that the Spaniard will lead the line again in Switzerland, the line up behind him however will be interesting. If, as seems likely Benitez has an eye to the upcoming league at the weekend, the three supporting players probably won’t comprise all three of Hazard, Mata and Oscar, with the former the most likely to sit out in favour of Victor Moses. With Lampard and Terry likely to play, Chelsea won’t lack an experienced spine, and on their day, a half-decent line up should be more than capable of coming home with a good result.
Clearly Basle are no pushovers, and a number of sound results against English teams – Manchester United and Spurs included – in the last couple of years point up the dangers of underestimating the Swiss champions. That said, Chelsea should be too hungry to fall into that particular trap, and a performance with the right mentality should prevent any unwelcome surprises. A victory by the odd goal in three or five, or a scoring draw will probably do nicely for the Blues with the home leg to come, seems a likely prospect, and that would mean Chelsea hanging on to that last chance of glory for a while longer yet.