Chelsea vs Crystal Palace: Thomas Tuchel’s side must prioritise FA Cup as they near end of tumultuous season
Chelsea take on Crystal Palace in the FA Cup semi-finals on Sunday for the chance to play Liverpool at Wembley next month; Blues are out of the Premier League title race and were eliminated from the Champions League this week; Thomas Tuchel’s side waiting to discover identity of new owners
Chelsea’s agonising exit from the Champions League at the hands of Real Madrid on Tuesday came with the feeling that an era was ending. Not only was their reign as European champions finished, but it was also likely to be Chelsea’s final match in the competition under the ownership of Roman Abramovich.
But putting the pain of being knocked out of Europe aside – as well as the worries over the club’s future as one of the continent’s most successful sides that Abramovich’s impending exit is generating – the aggregate defeat to Real also left Chelsea with just one remaining realistic route to silverware this season.
The points gap to Premier League title-chasers Manchester City and Liverpool is in double digits with just eight games remaining, meaning that success in the FA Cup is surely the only way that Thomas Tuchel’s side can add to the European Super Cup and Club World Cup they won earlier this season.
Of Chelsea’s three potential semi-final opponents when the draw was made, Crystal Palace were likely the pick of the bunch, but victory at Wembley is far from certain given the Eagles’ resurgence under Patrick Vieira. And even if Chelsea are able to negotiate their way into a third successive FA Cup final, they would almost certainly go into the game as underdogs against Liverpool.
Nevertheless, lifting the cup and ensuring they don’t end the season without a domestic trophy for the fourth successive season must now be a priority. But would doing so be enough to guarantee that the campaign goes down as a successful one?
Man City and Liverpool still out of reach
Their status as European champions, the promise of a first full season under Tuchel and the return of club-record signing Romelu Lukaku meant Chelsea entered the campaign with genuine hope of launching their first title challenge since winning the league under Antonio Conte in 2017.
Momentum was generated thanks to the Super Cup win over Villarreal, and some impressive early victories in the Premier League took them to the top of the table after 10 matches.
But any expectation of glory was thrown into doubt by disappointing draws at home to Burnley and Michael Carrick’s Manchester United, before a run of just two league wins in nine matches crushed the Blues’ title ambitions by mid-January. Seeing Manchester City and Liverpool racing into the distance with four months of the season still to play cannot be seen as anything other than a disappointment.
Chelsea may argue that progress is still discernible given they ended last season 19 points behind champions Man City, while the current gap is now down to 12 points. Tuchel’s team can also point to the fact they hold what should be a comfortable lead over the likes of Tottenham, Arsenal and Man Utd and that third place is theirs to lose, whereas they only secured a top-four finish on the final day of last season. But there’s no hiding that, over a long league campaign, Chelsea are still a level below Man City and Liverpool.
As for Lukaku, his failure to have the desired impact means Chelsea are likely to end the season without a player reaching 20 goals across all competitions for the fourth season in a row. The striker’s controversial interview with Sky in Italy just months after returning to Stamford Bridge, in which he expressed a desire to one day move back to Inter Milan and questioned Tuchel’s tactics, didn’t help his cause. The Belgian now finds himself out the starting XI and the struggles of such an exciting signing have put a dampener on Chelsea’s season
Chelsea’s Champions League campaign was in many ways similar to their efforts in the Premier League – a 4-0 thrashing of Juventus in the group stage suggested a deep run in the competition was possible, while they came within 10 minutes of producing one of the tournament’s all-time great comebacks in the Bernabeu.
But ultimately Chelsea were eliminated by a side they dispatched comfortably in the semi-finals last season, thanks largely to a host of missed chances and some uncharacteristic defensive errors – all while Man City and Liverpool remain on course to meet in the final.
The closest the Blues have come to winning domestic silverware so far this season came in the Carabao Cup, where they came out on the wrong side of a marathon penalty shootout against Liverpool. While there was barely anything to separate the sides on the day, it was Chelsea’s fifth cup final defeat in the last four seasons – a curious statistic for a club that has had a habit of rising to the biggest occasions.
To their credit, that was a habit they were able to show in the Super Cup win – their first for 23 years – and their victorious Club World Cup campaign in February, which saw them lift the trophy for the first time in the club’s history and may well ensure that, as long as Chelsea finish in the top four, this season will not go down as a failure.
‘Figurehead’ Tuchel leads Chelsea through ownership drama
But perhaps Tuchel’s biggest achievement this season has been keeping the team on track throughout the turbulence of the last few months. Abramovich’s announcement that he was planning to sell the club caused shockwaves, given he had bankrolled their success for nearly two decades, while the government’s decision to freeze the Russian billionaire’s assets – including Chelsea – sparked fears for their future.
Chelsea also remain unable to renew contracts, which leaves Antonio Rudiger and Andreas Christensen as impending free agents and means a host of other negotiations – including with N’Golo Kante and Jorginho – have been unable to progress.
All of this could have caused huge unease amongst the squad, but Tuchel has managed to keep the team united, as shown by their record of eight wins from 11 matches since Abramovich first declared his intention to sell.
Tuchel’s impressive displays in front of the media at a time when very few others at the club have been either willing or able to address the current issues have also garnered praise, with Jamie Carragher telling Sky Sports last month: “He’s a brilliant manager, but the way he’s handled himself in the last couple of weeks has really shown what kind of a guy he is. He’s been the figurehead for Chelsea and he’s come across really well. He’s been a real leader for this club.”
Chelsea’s performance in cup finals since 2016/17
|2016/17||FA Cup (lost 2-1 vs Arsenal)|
|2017/18||FA Cup (won 1-0 vs Man Utd)|
|2018/19||Carabao Cup (0-0 vs Man City, lost on pens); Europa League (won 4-1 vs Arsenal)|
|2019/20||FA Cup (lost 2-1 to Arsenal); Super Cup (2-2 vs Liverpool, lost on pens)|
|2020/21||FA Cup (lost 1-0 to Leicester); Champions League (won 1-0 vs Man City)|
|2021/22||Carabao Cup (0-0 vs Liverpool, lost on pens); Super Cup (1-1 vs Villarreal, won on pens); Club World Cup (won 2-1 vs Palmeiras)|
The immediate concerns over Chelsea’s future have been alleviated by the prospect of new owners – the deadline for final bids from the four shortlisted candidates was Thursday – and there is hope a takeover could be completed before the end of the season.
And what better way for Chelsea to see off the campaign than with a third successive appearance in the FA Cup final, possibly even with the new owners in attendance at Wembley? But first, the Blues must see off Palace, and Tuchel believes the opportunity to do so presents the perfect chance to bounce back from their Champions League disappointment.
“This is a big knockout game at Wembley, which is, in my opinion, a good thing because there’s a huge reward coming with it,” he said on Friday.
If Chelsea are able to claim that reward, they will give themselves one final chance to topple Liverpool and ensure that a dramatic, and at times disappointing season, ends on the highest of highs.
Follow Chelsea vs Crystal Palace in Sky Sports’ live match blog on Sunday, with kick-off at 4.30pm.