The Case of the Blues: Chelsea’s shaky start to the 1st half of the 2012-2013 campaign

Last May, Chelsea surprised both its fans and neutrals alike in winning the Champion’s League for the first time in its 107-year history, defeating favorites Barcelona in the semi-finals and edging out Bayern Munich on penalties to become the first London-based club to win European football’s most prestigious competition. And hence, despite finishing in 6th place following a roller-coaster season which saw them start out with one coach and finish with another, the Blues qualified for next season’s edition of the CL at the expense of rivals Tottenham who had to settle for a Europa League spot.

Their pre-season tour in the U.S. was by no means a success—they had only one solitary win over MLS’s Seattle Sounders before finishing with a tie vs. PSG and consecutive losses to MLS All-Stars and AC Milan, and upon returning to England lost 3-1 to mid-table Championship side Brighton. Still, one could argue that pre-season performances aren’t an entirely accurate predictor of how a team will fare in the actual season—Real Madrid, who won all 4 fixtures of their U.S. tour, yet is currently languishing in 3rd place, 16 points behind rivals Barcelona—is a prime example.

Yet, despite their disappointing pre-season tour and starting off the season with a 3-2 loss in the Community Shield to Manchester City as well as a 4-1 drubbing by Atlético Madrid in the UEFA Super Cup, Chelsea started the season off solidly, and in the earliest rounds of action were undefeated and sitting on top of the table. They’d also started the CL group stages off decently, tying Serie A champions Juventus 2-2 in their opening match and easily brushing aside Danish minnows Nordsjaelland 4-0 in their first away fixture. However, over the next few weeks in October, their good start to the 2012-2013 campaign began to crumble: in the span of a week they not only lost their first CL match to Shakhtar, but also followed it up with their first PL loss to Manchester United. By the following month, they had lost the top spot in the table after drawing 1-1 to Swansea, and despite a victory against Shakhtar thanks to a stoppage time goal from winger Victor Moses which propelled them to the top of Group E, they still continued to struggle in league play, falling further behind leaders Man U and failing to register a victory in the entire month of November.

 The Blues’ November nadir continued with a 3-0 defeat to Juventus in their away fixture, their heaviest loss in the CL group stage and left them on the brink of elimination from Europe’s premier football completion. And, as we’re all aware, despite defeating Nordsjaelland 6-1, Juventus managed to defeat Shakhtar thanks to an own goal by the Ukrainians and Chelsea became the first team to receive the ignominious honor of winning the CL and failing to get out of the group stage in the next season.

Given the fact that under Roman Abramovich’s 9-year ownership, the Russian czar has gone through a whopping 9 coaches thus far—something more commonly seen in the Italian league and unheard of in the EPL—not surprisingly, following their defeat in Turin, manager Roberto di Matteo was sacked in favor of former Liverpool and Inter Milan manager Rafael Benitez, a man, whom, to put it frankly, didn’t have Chelsea fans singing his praises. Under their new coach, the team didn’t start off well—losing their first game before finally winning their first league fixture in 7 against Sunderland. Yet, the roller-coaster continued: despite getting through to the CWC final, they lost, 1-0, to Corinthians, only to come back from Japan and score 14 goals in 3 games—a 5-1 comprehensive victory over Leeds in the League Cup, a 8-0 mauling of Aston Villa (the highest PL victory thus far this season), and earned a much-needed 3 points in a scrappy 1-0 defeat of Norwich City.

Currently, they sit in 5th place, a massive 16 points behind Manchester United, so re-claiming top spot in the table is definitely out of the question. Still, as they prepare for their last league game of the 2012 calendar year vs. Everton, who sits 2 points behind them, albeit with an extra game in hand, one might be wondering where things went awry, especially in the Champion’s League. Certainly, Chelsea’s fans weren’t anticipating their team playing in the Europa League and being in the unique position of possibly winning Europe’s premier and secondary competitions in consecutive seasons, and whether Benitez is still at the helm of the London-based club come end of the reason remains to be seen. But one thing is certain—fans will be hoping that after the bumpy ride thus far, smoother sailing is in the forecast for the second half of the season in 2013.

Michelle Bonsu