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Pat Nevin: How do you build on being champions of Europe?

In the short gap between Chelsea’s crowning glory in Portugal and the start of international football’s long-awaited European Championships, Blues legend Pat Nevin surveys the season just completed and lists how the team will improve in 2021/22…


This season will go down in Chelsea history as one of the greats, mostly because we won the Champions League but also because of the run to the FA Cup final and the top-four finish to ensure Champions League status, not that it was needed in the end.

That final point may not be absolutely true. Having the next season’s Champions League place in the bag certainly took the pressure off for the final in Porto, which helped considerably.

Whatever anyone says, this all looked a long shot back in the winter. It was far from an awful season with Chelsea cruising through a Champions League group which included Sevilla, Krasnodar and Rennes, but the league position was lurching from week to week. One moment it looked very good, two games later it was very concerning.

Year like no other

It was an odd season in the Premier League anyway, one where it was hard to judge at any point what the true bigger picture was. Man City might have been cruising, but other clubs and their coaches were under pressure week after week. The classic example was Ole Gunner Solskjaer who, if you were reading the newspapers, was on the verge of been sacked but ended up with his team in a European final and finishing a highly creditable second in the league.

A lot of the confusion was to do with the oddness of the campaign. There were too many games too close together with injuries, tiredness and the luck of the fixture list playing a big part in the form slumps of every side. This was alongside the most important phenomena, having no fans in the ground. The big clubs struggled to deal with the lack of a raucous home support. Liverpool and Manchester United in particular found the missing crowds hugely disconcerting, both claiming far more points away from home that they did at Anfield and Old Trafford.

'He's among the most exciting players in world football and has definitely and clearly been improving at a staggering speed'

photo of Pat Nevin on Chelsea star Pat Nevin on Chelsea star

Chelsea were pretty much the same home or away which stood us in good stead, but even that couldn’t explain a decent season turning into a Champions League winning season. We all want to appreciate what Frank Lampard did during his spell as boss. Apart from getting a top-four finish the season before and guiding us to an FA Cup final, he also brought through so many youngsters to the men’s first team, from Mason Mount to Tammy Abraham, Reece James, Billy Gilmour and the rest. He left a fabulous and lasting legacy in that alone.

Fine tuning

I had a quick look at some of Frank’s formations and team selections for big games and it was very interesting. In the 0-0 game against Manchester United back in October last year, he played a very Thomas Tuchel like 3-4-3 that only had two changes from the team that played in the Champions League final. Christian Pulisic was in for Mason Mount and Kurt Zouma played rather than Toni Rudiger.

The successful team was in there all along and all that was needed was a little tinkering at the edges with players’ self-belief and a settled system they could buy into. That sounds crazily simple in hindsight, but it isn’t. I was impressed with Frank’s willingness to be adaptable in different situations with the system and the personnel. This is often an important skill to have. Thomas Tuchel also made changes after he arrived but they were tweaks rather than big bold moves. The three at the back was set in stone for example.

In hindsight the biggest hint that this team could go on to greatness was the 4-0 win in Seville after a game against Spurs a few days before. Only one outfield player started both games, Mateo Kovacic, yet a top Spanish side were crushed. Something stirred at that moment in our collective minds. We have got a very, very deep squad in a season that needs that back up more than any other season in history.

The real Chelsea fans started talking about the possibility of winning the Champions League after we saw off Atletico Madrid, though I don’t think anyone else took the idea seriously. This was grown-up stuff against one of the wiliest teams and smartest coaches in the world. It is worth recalling that back then both Olivier Giroud and Callum Hudson-Odoi were starters in the away leg. When the draw for the next rounds was made, a lot more people really began to sit up and think could it happen?

Beating Porto wasn’t a surprise but the demolition of Real Madrid will remain with me as one of the best performances by a Chelsea team and its coach in many years. It was a fearless display of high-octane skilful football against a club and group of players who generally frighten most opponents off their game. I have an enduring memory of Kante (obviously), Mount and Jorginho terrorising their midfield and breaking in numbers alongside Pulisic and Timo Werner time and again in the first half. We should have scored four before the break and the only disappointment was that the final aggregate of 3-1 was not a realistic reflection of the two games - 7-2 would have been about right.

In time we might forget that in April and May we had 16 games and every single one of them felt crucial. It is hard to believe that in our last four games there was a good argument that our FA Cup final against Leicester could have been the least important game of them all! That is the level of pressure that was on all the time.

Forward thinking

Like every Chelsea fan I was gutted by that loss at Wembley but to be honest, come the end of the season no one could complain about the silverware delivered. That night in Porto will never be forgotten and on top of that, Thomas Tuchel has signed a new longer contract and most importantly the team now looks ready to ‘kick on’. It feels weird writing that, how do you ’kick on’ from winning the Champions League?

Well, you do that by improving and I do believe this team can still improve. Kai Havertz is among the most exciting players in world football and has definitely and clearly been improving at a staggering speed over the past few months. Mount, Gilmour, Werner, Pulisic and James have been brilliant over the last year but each will be an even better player next season.

Considering the ups and downs this season has provided, I cannot believe how calm I am about the club’s position. It will never be totally smooth, it never is in football and with Chelsea in particular, but that is part of the reason we love the game and the club. That and the fact we keep winning trophy after trophy and in an exceptionally exciting way. Long may it continue and most importantly, with our fans finally back inside the Bridge to see it all.

Competition quiz

For last week’s quiz competition to win a copy of my (Sunday Times best selling!) book The Accidental Footballer, which you can now buy at the Stamford Bridge Megastore and online from the club, the question I asked was apart from Chelsea, how many British teams have won the men's Champions League or as it was previously called, the European Cup.

The answer was five - Celtic, Manchester United, Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa and Liverpool - as well as the Blues. The lucky winner chosen at random from the correct answers is Dave Finlayson from Tweedbank.

I will be reporting from the Euros over the next few weeks so will let you know what it has been like at Hampden and Wembley. Now I wonder, who will I support on the 18 June - Mason Mount or Billy Gilmour?

 

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