Even if it’s a second tier competition, the UEFA Europa League presents Chelsea with a golden ticket to the Champions’ League, and Sarri to return major European silverware in his first season at the club.
Regrettably, in the eyes of most Chelsea fans who have enjoyed the increased success of the club in recent years, it is time to conform to the reality of Thursday night play in the Europa League this year. Coming off the back of a troublesome previous season, the target switches to what is in many fan’s aspects, a must win European campaign. Must Chelsea Football Club win the Europa League to consider this endeavor a success, or are there numerous criteria of success in this enterprise?
Undoubtedly, anyone associated with the blue side of West London understands the club’s involvement in the second tier competition, behind the UEFA Champions League is a discouraging one; but does it have to be? Take your mind back to 2013, under Rafa Benitez, when Branislav Ivanovic scored that stoppage-time header against Benfica to clinch a maiden Europa League trophy in the club’s history. This coming off the back of winning the Champions League the previous season; I doubt any CFC fans would have been grumbling when the trophy was hoisted to the sky inside the Johan Cruyff Arena, in Amsterdam. In the process, Chelsea became the first English side to win all three major European competitions, having previously triumphed in the UCL and now-obsolete Cup Winners’ Cup. Chelsea have shattered numerous records in the last 15 years, this was just another to the collection.
For any club, any trophy available to win should be taken seriously. Yes, even the Community Shield. We must remember, the Europa League is one of only two major European trophies on offer across the continent, and arguably more luxuriously, the winner gains automatic qualification to the holy grail of the Champions League. Furthermore, with the increased competition amongst the coveted top 6 teams, the significance of the Europa League only escalates, with two strong English sides dropping into the tournament each year. Undoubtedly, the level of the championship has significantly improved, with Chelsea, Sevilla, Manchester United, and recently Atletico Madrid all winners in the previous six years, each a representation of top teams in arguably the two most mesmerizing leagues in the world. With the Europa League providing an alternative route to the Champions League, this may benefit Chelsea FC in a way that the emphasis on a top four finish may not be as fundamental as deemed necessary. Yes, ideally Chelsea would like to finish in the top four come May 2019, and take the burden of a must win final game in the Europa League away; however, the winning of this competition does offer a route into the UCL, which right now, any Chelsea fan would grasp with both hands, giving the disappointment of last season.
I do not expect to see much perplexity from fans whenever we see the squad numerously rotated throughout the various competitions during the season. With promising youngsters such as Ethan Ampadu, Andreas Christensen, Callum Hudson-Odoi, and Ruben Loftus-Cheek awaiting their centerpiece moment, and quality squad players in Ross Barkley, Cesc Fabregas, Olivier Giroud and more challenging for starting berths, the entire squad, with or without rotation, is certainly more than capable with the level of talent at its disposal, to compete at the highest level. This must be cited, to avoid the rationalization that due to squad rotation, Chelsea may not be able to compete in the final stages of these competitions, and specifically in Europe. Chelsea are a European powerhouse, and anyone donning the royal blue is and must be prepared to play in these intensified fixtures.
With the Community Shield loss, a testing away fixture at Anfield against Liverpool in the third round of the Carabao Cup, a colossal Manchester City side in the Premier League, and an unknown Sarri emphasis on the FA Cup, the Europa League may offer a moderate pathway to a first major trophy for Maurizio Sarri. Much weight is placed on the scales holding the fact that Sarri has yet to win a trophy in his coaching career, yet, bar the Premier League, is there a better trophy to win this year than the Europa League? For me, the simple answer would be no. It’s no secret that today, any European achievement on a club’s rèsumè seemingly carries more excitement and substance than a cup competition such as the FA Cup or the Carabao Cup. With this, I fully expect Sarri and his team to make Europe paramount this year, and I believe Chelsea must win the tournament to consider the venture a success. Who knows, in a quintessential world, Chelsea may finish the 2018/19 season with a domestic and European trophy in the cabinet.