Tom Dean looks at the problems Chelsea face ahead of next season as they contend with a transfer ban, an unbalanced ageing squad and Champions League qualification.Embed from Getty Images
A shaky first season under Maurizio Sarri saw Chelsea limp over the line with a return to Champions League football and another Europa League trophy for the cabinet.
Ordinarily that would be great news for any club and its supporters but qualification for Europe’s top competition could have much wider implications for the Blues.
Chelsea are currently facing an anxious wait to find out whether the Court of Arbitration for Sport will overturn the two-window transfer ban that was imposed on them by FIFA earlier this year.
The ban was enforced following an investigation into the club’s recruitment of international players under the age of 18 – which is pretty ironic given the apparent attitude towards young players and the farcical loan system at Stamford Bridge.
In the past FIFA has suspended bans while the appeal process takes place but Roman Abramovich’s team were afforded no such luxury and therein lies the problem.Embed from Getty Images
Champions League campaigns are the ultimate test of squad depth and although Chelsea are by no means short of personnel – it might well end up being the same names on the backs of the shirts, minus a few, next season.
What Tottenham have been able to achieve in Europe this season with the bare bones of a squad has been nothing short of a miracle but that is not the Chelsea way and never has been.
The premature acquisition of Christian Pulisic should be a reason for optimism but one player can’t paper over the cracks that have been visible for the duration of the season.
Nor can he fill the void that will be left after what looks like the unavoidable departure of talisman Eden Hazard.Embed from Getty Images
Chelsea fans have been crying out for an overhaul for some time now but losing Hazard was never part of the plan and it looks as though they might be forced to settle for more familiar faces to bolster the squad next season.
The Champions League almost seems like a headache that they just don’t need at the moment and if the ban sticks, it could very quickly turn into a migraine.
Here’s a look at the potential issues Sarri faces in each department:
Problems up front?
The ‘underperforming’ Alvaro Morata was loaned out to Atletico Madrid in January with more goals to his name than the imcumbent Gonzalo Higuain.
Morata then scored more goals in Spain in fewer appearances than the Argentine managed in England – work that one out.
Chelsea have the option to extended Higuain’s loan but after his performances the prospect does not seem so appealing and Sarri clearly isn’t keen on Morata either.Embed from Getty Images
Meanwhile, Europa League god Olivier Giroud has been rewarded with a new contract but was overlooked as the man to lead Sarri’s line in the Premier League last season and could face the same problem in the Champions League next time around.
And it is highly likely that the option of playing Hazard through the middle will be on the table next season either – which leaves Sarri out of alternatives.
Loan recalls for Tammy Abraham and Michy Batshuayi would be probabilities at any other club in the country but it is quite obvious that neither of them fit into the former Napoli boss’ plans at the moment.
Abraham has been a goal machine in the Championship but Villa Park is a far-cry from the Nou Camp while Batshuayi has proven himself to be a goalscorer wherever he has played – could he be the solution?
Problems in midfield?
Jorginho and N’Golo Kante look to have booked their places in the side for life but they appear to be the only ones.
Ross Barkley has shown glimpses of his potential throughout the season but has not been able to do it on a consistent enough basis.
His English counterpart, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, on the other hand had put a nice run together at the back-end of the season but an Achilles injury looks to have sidelined him for the long term.Embed from Getty Images
There is also the opportunity to keep hold of on-loan Mateo Kovacic from Real Madrid and is rumoured to be part of the deal to take Hazard the other way but the Croatian hasn’t exactly set the world alight during his stay in west London.
Meanwhile Danny Drinkwater has dropped off the face of the earth but that is it as far as central midfielders go.
Tiémoué Bakayoko is another forgotten man who is still on the books but his future lies in the hands of AC Milan, who have an option to buy him for €38,000,000 – this seems unlikely however.
Marco van Ginkel has also found himself cast into the nether regions of the Chelsea loan system and could make a return to the first team but fans might prefer the prospect of Mason Mount after the youngster spent the season under watchful eye of club legend Frank Lampard at Derby County.Embed from Getty Images
The wide don’t look too healthy either with many of the belief that Willian and Pedro are past their best and should be moved on but their experience in Europe could now prove vital next season.
The one glorious redeeming fact is that Callum Hudson-Odoi can really play football.
It was a use-him-or-lose-him scenario that finally forced Sarri to bring the 18-year-old into his plans last season but like RBL, an Achillies injury could see him miss a large proportion of next year.
It is also worth mentioning that Kenedy, Lewis Baker, Mario Pasalic and Charly Musonda are all still Chelsea players – kind of.
Problems in defence?
David Luiz enjoyed one of his better seasons in a Chelsea shirt earning himself a couple of extra years on his contact.
His partnership with Antonio Rudiger has been one of the main positives to come out of this season but it may have had knock-on effect elsewhere.
Reduced playing time for the once-promising Andreas Christensen has stifled his progress as a back-up central defender and with Gary Cahill on his way out of Stamford Bridge, Chelsea are going to need cover in that position.
Ethan Ampadu can play there but is very limited in terms of senior experience and Cesar Azpilicueta has also been known to move into the middle but is preferred on the right side of defence.Embed from Getty Images
The out-of-favour Davide Zappacosta looked like another likely candidate to leave London this summer but Chelsea may well need to keep hold of him or else risk being left short in that department.
Things don’t look much better on the left flank either with the form of Marcos Alonso questionable and the signing of Emerson Palmieri not having quite worked out.
Youngsters Reece James, Trevoh Chalobah and Jay Dasilva have all looked like diamonds in the rough during their respective Championship loans this season and could be called upon for first-team action – but re they ready for the step up?
Replacing wantaway Thibaut Courtois was never going to be easy but Chelsea looked to have nailed it when they brought in Kepa Arrizabalaga for a club-record fee.
The Blues have gone unbeaten in the Europa League this season with Kepa keeping eight clean sheets en route to Baku but the shot stopper’s season will no doubt be remembered most for his refusal to leave the pitch in the Carabao Cup final.
That all seems to have been forgiven and forgotten now and with back-up Willy Caballero seemingly happy to see out his career as a bench-warmer – Chelsea might just be safe between the sticks next season.Embed from Getty Images
We obviously won’t mention Rob Green.
So what next?
In isolation the three separate matters of a transfer ban, an unbalanced ageing squad and Champions League qualification might not be so bad – but the culmination of all three could be devastating.
There is of course the possibility that the transfer ban will be lifted but these things take time and with the international window set to open on June 9, Chelsea could be resigned to missing out on some hot property.
The likes of Luka Jovic, Bruno Fernandes, Joao Felix could all command high transfer fees this summer, something Abramovich is not shy to commit to, but they won’t be heading to Stamford Bridge any time soon.
The Russian’s reign has been a tumultuous one fluctuating from unbridled success to despair and it looks as though it could now be headed into another cyclone of uncertainty.
For the non-partial football purists, Champions League football could conversely be the best thing to happen at Chelsea as they might now be forced to abandon their absurd loan policy and give some young players a chance.
But don’t hold your breath…
Follow Tom on Twitter @tombendean