Chelsea Mascots at Stamford Bridge, 2016, Ravish London


2017-2018 was a season of disaffection and uncertainty for Chelsea
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No one, including Chelsea, got out of the blocks quickly enough in 2017 to keep up with Manchester City, who in their second season under Pep Guardiola, had become a dynamic, well-drilled, overwhelming force. Manchester City started off like a greyhound and maintained that pace to the end, amassing 100 points. In contrast Chelsea spluttered and by February 2018 had found themselves amongst a bunch of clubs (Manchester United, Liverpool, Tottenham and Arsenal) competing for second spot and the three remaining Champions League places. That not all was going well for Chelsea was emphasized on 31st January when they were beaten by the smallest club in the Premier League, Bournemouth, by three goals to nil at Stamford Bridge. That was then followed by another heavy defeat, 4-1, to another small club, Watford.


Despite these defeats Chelsea hung on to the prospect of finishing in the top four. Towards the end of the season they rallied, by managing to beat Liverpool, who were in third and had just won their semi-final to get into the final of the Champions League. This put Chelsea within striking distance of both Tottenham and Liverpool, but in the end it was to no avail. In their next game against Huddersfield Town, they could only draw. It had not been the best time to play Huddersfield, they needed one point to avoid relegation, and yet the result was two points wasted and symptomatic of Chelsea's underperformance. Despite the draw Chelsea maintained an outside chance of displacing Liverpool for fourth, but in the last game of the season they were comprehensively beaten by Rafa Benitez's mid-table Newcastle United 3-0. They finished fifth Chelsea, with the ignominy of knowing that their close rivals Tottenham had finished two places above them to take a coveted Champions League place.


As a consolation Chelsea had the FA Cup final to look to. They won 1-0. In the final they played Jose Mourinho's Manchester United, who had finished the season second. During the season United had proven themselves to be a side that could regularly score three points against lower sides, but which struggled in the bigger matches. United were a side reasonably resolute in defence, but who seemed unbalanced and disjointed going forward. Neither Chelsea nor Manchester United deserved to win the FA Cup. Neither played particularly well. Chelsea opened the scoring with a piece of brilliance by Eden Hazard. His speed and agility helped earn a penalty, which he then dispatched. From this point on Chelsea were unable to slow the match down or dominate possession, and in this sense they were a pale shadow of the finely tuned army that Mourinho had once had under his command. Manchester United showed a frenzied energy and desire to get back into the match. Fortunately for Chelsea Mourinho's side was too disjointed to threaten Chelsea and its finishing too haywire to get back into the game. So Chelsea ended the season with some silverware, something that could not be said of its closest rivals Tottenham and Arsenal. Not that caused a great deal of mirth. Players interviewed on TV in the minutes following the final whistle, like Gary Cahill, seemed to be relieved, rather than happy. The disappointment of not retaining the title and not qualifying for the Champions League loomed large.


It was almost as if the FA Cup Final victory had done nothing to sweeten the sourness of Chelsea's season. There was some debate as to the cause of Chelsea's dip in form in Conte's second season. It was bizarre that once again a Chelsea squad, which had won the title one year was so unimpressive the next. It looked from the outside as if there was some kind of culture within the Chelsea squad whereby the players deliberately, at times, decided to reduce their effort, in order to enact some kind of retribution on the boss. The first piece of evidence for this was Chelsea's collapse following Mourinho's title win with them in 2014-15. But their heavy defeats to Bournemouth, Watford and their very poor form towards the end of the season, including their capitulation to mid-table Newcastle United in a season, in which they beat Manchester United to take the FA Cup and very nearly qualified for the Champions League was very odd. Besides the attitudes of the squad players, another factor that people pointed towards was the business that Chelsea had done in the transfer market. World-class players were leaving, and being replaced by players who could function in the Premier League, but who by no means excelled. Douglas Costa, a world-class striker, had been sold to be replaced by Real Madrid stocking-filler Alvaro Morata. Similarly international class Nemanja Matic had been sold, to be replaced with players who struggle for form in the Premier League or struggled to get into the national side, like Kevin Drinkwater, Ross Barkley, Olivier Giroud and Victor Moses. Besides World Class players leaving and not being replaced, others, like David Luiz were not getting a game.


The extent to which the manager Alberto Conte could be blamed for this was debated. Some questioned whether Conte had any purchase over the transfer policy. Some blamed .


But beyond whether Conte or others were taking the decision, it also seemed to be the case that Chelsea's board was changing direction or perhaps had lost their direction in the last few years. Certainly at some point in the early 2000s Chelsea were vying to be the top club in English football. But in recent years they had fallen behind and by the end of 2018 were not considered one of the top clubs either in achievement or in spending. It wasn't that Abramovich didn't have the money. He did. However having invested so much money since 2003 Chelsea were finding that despite everything, and perhaps because of the rise of Manchester City they were unable to dominate nationally and in Europe. Maybe Abramovich, without wanting to have thrown the towel in completely, had gotten tired of the frustrations and challenges of football. The signing of a raft of players who were good, but not of world-class quality, was indicative of this. It might have been indicative of the fact that Chelsea hoped they could continue to achieve, but without spending as much money, doing a Wenger essentially. The problem was, however, that Arsenal, operating on that philosophy were slowly drifting down the table. Chelsea it seemed were destined to go in the same direction. The problem for Chelsea, which was also the problem for Arsenal, was the competition. Manchester City had struck gold with their manager, who was creating a formidable outfit from a position of real financial power. Manchester United, who earned fare more money than any other club, were determined to keep spending, and they had a decent manager who would be guaranteed to make them competitive. Tottenham and Liverpool also had great managers who were creating very impressive sides with slightly less or the same amount of resource as Chelsea. Further to that there was Arsenal, who like Chelsea had missed out on Champions League football, who had decided to replace Arsene Wenger with Unai Emery, a move which Arsenal fans had hoped would result in increased spending.


Whatever the reasons for the slow decline in Chelsea the pre-season promised to be an interesting one. There had been talk all season about Antonio Conte, either leaving the club or being sacked. Furthermore there was suggestion that the club's world-class contingent, Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois, would be on their way. Neither Conte nor Hazard had pledged their undying loyalty to Chelsea football club when asked about their future in the aftermath of the FA Cup final. What no-one had realized though was that a much bigger challenge was going to be posed to the club's future by the changing picture in international politics. An indicator of the problem had already been provided with the absence of Chelsea chairman Roman Abramovich at Wembley for the FA Cup Final. The reason for this absence was that Abramovich had not had his visa for re-entry into the United Kingdom renewed. The origins of this development lay in deteriorating relations with the regime of Vladimir Putin, which contained Abramovich's country of origin and the United Kingdom. Months before the end of the season the family of a Russian dissident, living in Salisbury, had been the victim of a chemical warfare attack, something, which the British government claimed was the responsibility of Putin's regime. The attack was part of several developments, which amounted to an act of war from Putin's Russian state on the United Kingdom, albeit a war without nuclear weapons or conventional arms. The Prime Minister at the time, Theresa May and her government, resolved to do something about the situation, decided that the time had come to tighten up the scrutiny over which Russians it let into the United Kingdom. Since the end of the cold war the United Kingdom had been happy to let rich Russians, many of whom had made billions through manipulating fellow Russians and exploiting Russia's mineral wealth, so long as they came along with their ill gotten gains and invested it in British infrastructure and the off shore tax havens that the British financial institutions provided the gateway too. That this was so was indicated in 2014, when an adviser to the then Prime Minister David Cameron was photographed with notes warning Cameron not to be too harsh with Russia over their annexation of the Crimea from the Ukraine, because Russians had invested a lot of money in London's financial markets. However Theresa May was a different kind of Prime Minister, someone who was less interested in avoiding conflict for the sake of economic convenience. In fact she seemed to relish taking a stand at times, and making things difficult for those who were determined to bully their way into a situation. The consequence of this, it was reported, was that the Home Office had had a major review of the visas that it was issuing to Russians who spent some of their time ensconced in the United Kingdom, especially those who had good relations with Vladimir Putin. Roman Abramovich was reported to be one such man, anyone in Russia who had wealth and wanted to keep it, had no choice but to be. It turned out that Abramovich's non-appearance at the FA Cup Final was because he had not been able to get a renewed visa to enter and live in the United Kingdom.


News of Abramovich's inability to get back into the United Kingdom was followed by news that he had been given Israeli citizenship, Abramovich being both Jewish and Russian, and so of the right type of ethnic stock to find favour with the racist immigration policy of Israel, which favoured Jewish applications for Israeli citizenship, over others. Abramovich's move meant that on his Israeli passport, he would like all Israeli citizens, be able to visit the United Kingdom for six months at a time. More immediately relevant to Chelsea fans, it was also followed by an announcement that Abramovich had decided to shelve plans for rebuilding Stamford Bridge. Plans for stadium redevelopment had seemed to be an essential part of Abramovich's plans to transform Chelsea for good, and allow them to grow the type of support, which would see them be entrenched as one of Britain's top clubs. But now the possibility of Chelsea being returned to its station as a mid-table or yo-yo club seemed to be rearing its head. The twenty-first century rise of Chelsea had been intimately related with the rise of the post-communist Russian oligarchy, an oligarchy that like the world's oligarchies had been more than welcome guests in London. However, all of a sudden it seemed as if international events had contrived to put those relationships in jeopardy, and with it the future of Chelsea football club.