Having steadied the ship with just their third Premier League win of the season on Saturday, Chelsea are now under pressure to do likewise when returning to Champions League action on Tuesday. After a 2-1 defeat to Porto three weeks ago, Jose Mourinho’s side will be desperate to avoid another loss in a tough trip to Dynamo Kiev.
Were that to be outcome, Chelsea would reach the halfway point of the group stage trailing Dynamo, and likely Porto, by four points. Mourinho has regularly made light of the Europa League, particularly in relation to Rafael Benitez’s triumph in the competition with Chelsea two years ago, but the prospect of dropping into Europe’s second tier would become a very real one. It would deliver yet another blow to Mourinho’s reputation, which has already been dented more this season than any other in his trophy-laden managerial career.
Yet there remains a possibility that Chelsea’s woeful start to their Premier League title defense could aid them in the Champions League. Currently 10 points behind Manchester City in England’s top flight, Chelsea are not out of the championship running, but they can afford seldom slip ups in the remaining 29 games.
The Champions League format means their struggles to this point need have no such long-term consequences should they now start to put things right. And it would be no surprise were Mourinho to switch his attentions firmly toward Europe should the title at home look out of reach.
The Champions League is, of course, the one major trophy still to elude him at Stamford Bridge. And winning the competition would also cement his place in the history books as the first manager in history to lift the European Cup with three different clubs. Having already won three Premier League crowns, it is surely the Champions League that the Portuguese now seeks most.
Last season that quest ended in surprising fashion in the Round of 16. Beaten by Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea were already showing signs of the fatigue that they battled through for much of the second half of last season. Mourinho had played a remarkably consistent lineup throughout the season, but this time it has already been different.
Due to an increasingly desperate search to inspire a change in fortunes, stalwarts like John Terry, Nemanja Matic and Eden Hazard have spent plenty of time on the sidelines this campaign. If those players do regain their form, they should be far fresher once the business end of the Champions League really gets going in the Spring. And if Chelsea are effectively out of the title race at home, they can save themselves even more for conquering the likes of Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Real Madrid.
Of all clubs, Chelsea will be aware of the potential for domestic struggles to aid European success. When the Blues won the Champions League for the first and still only time four seasons ago, they finished only sixth in the Premier League. At the climax of the campaign, then-manager Roberto di Matteo clearly prioritized the chase for European glory.
While Mourinho will be anything but relishing a start to the season that sees his side sitting a lowly 11th in the Premier League, it could yet work in his favor.
First, though, he needs to get his side performing. Even in a 2-0 victory against Villa on Saturday, Chelsea were still far from convincing. Mourinho opted to bring in two youngsters, with both Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Baba Rahman in the starting lineup for the first time this season. Yet Loftus-Cheek was replaced by Nemanja Matic at halftime, while Rahman hinted that he is far from the finished product defensively.
The lineup on Tuesday, and whether the likes of Hazard, Matic and Oscar return, will be closely watched. Certainly a trip to Kiev promises to be no simple task. Dynamo have won seven of their last 10 European home games, losing just once, and last season demolished Everton 5-2 at the Olimpiyskiy Stadium in the Europa League.
Under former Tottenham striker Sergei Rebrov, Dynamo are back in the Champions League for the first time in three seasons after winning the Ukrainian Premier League last term. And after opening up with a home draw to Porto, they won 2-0 at Maccabi Tel Aviv to put them level with the Portuguese side at the top of the group. Dynamo, though, enter the fixture with Chelsea on the back of a chastening 3-0 home loss to rivals Shakhtar Donetsk.