Even as the sole survivors from English football left in the Champions League tonight, there is no glossing over the fact that this is a Chelsea team inferior to its predecessors and if there were any doubts about that, Frank Lampard brushed them aside yesterday with a damning assessment of the season.
It was chiefly the club's Premier League form that Lampard was talking about when he said quite bluntly: "We're not as good as we used to be," in an interview with the club's in-house television station. Defeat to Manchester City and Saturday's listless draw with Tottenham Hotspur have left them five points off the top four and tonight they turn their attention to Benfica in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final tie.
The spirited victory over Napoli at Stamford Bridge 13 days ago will have felt a more distant memory for Roberto Di Matteo's Chelsea players as they trained at the Estadio da Luz last night. Then, the old guard came back to sweep Chelsea into the last eight of the competition in what proved the best night of the season at Stamford Bridge for a club that has picked up one point from a possible six in the league since.
Tonight, they face a Benfica team second in its own domestic league and marginally more rested having played on Friday night, drawing away at Olhanense. More critically, Benfica have lost at home only once all season, 3-2 to the leaders Porto earlier this month in a game that was decided in the 87th minute by Maicon's goal. In fact, Benfica have lost just three times all season: against Porto, away at Vitoria Guimaraes and in the away leg of the previous round against Zenit St Petersburg.
It makes for a grim task for Chelsea tonight and yesterday Lampard was especially pessimistic. "The fixtures and where we are in the table doesn't lie – we're not as good as we used to be," he said. "We used to have a fortress here [at Stamford Bridge] and, for whatever reason, we're just not doing it. It's something we must all put right.
"You know a derby against a very good Tottenham side is going to be tough. But I don't think we were at it enough. We had to play more with the urgency we showed against Napoli. Against Tottenham, we didn't really do enough to lift the fans. We had the high of Napoli, then we got beaten by Manchester City and now we need to up it again.
"Chelsea should be in the top four. No disrespect to the other top-five clubs but, with the ability we have, we should be in there. It is far from over. It's five points and the gap has been bigger than that. It's up to us now to get ourselves right for Benfica and the league games coming up."
History dictates that, if Chelsea are to progress to play – in all probability – Barcelona in the semi-finals then they will have to win the tie at Stamford Bridge in the return leg a week tomorrow. Since Roman Abramovich bought the club they have won just five knockout stage away legs out of a possible 20, against Copenhagen (2011), Liverpool (2009), Valencia (2007), Stuttgart and Arsenal (both 2004). All in, just three away wins outside England.
Winning on the road at this stage of the competition is no mean feat for any club and given Lampard's assessment of Chelsea's current form, a draw or even a narrow defeat with an away goal would give the side an excellent platform for the return game. The nature of the 3-1 defeat in Napoli required a huge effort on Chelsea's part to rescue the tie and the sheer effort over the 120 minutes that it took the team to turn it around may well have affected their last two league performances.
Even in Jose Mourinho's first season in charge, 2004-2005, when Chelsea beat Barcelona and Bayern Munich on their way to the semi-final against Liverpool, they lost in Spain and Germany. The two home-leg wins over Barça and Bayern, both 4-2, stand as a high point for the club in terms of performance in Europe, bettering even those displays which took them to the final in 2008.
In those games, it was the attacking combination of Lampard, Didier Drogba, Damien Duff, Eidur Gudjohnsen and Joe Cole that proved irresistible, and that was without Arjen Robben who was injured at the time. Now the options are that much more limited. If Chelsea are to win this tie come a week tomorrow then it will probably be because they proved themselves capable of containing Benfica tonight and leaving themselves with a chance at home.
In 2007, Mourinho's last full season, they went to Valencia in the quarter-finals having drawn the first leg at home 1-1 and in a deeply unpromising situation. David Villa's goal put them on the brink of elimination but goals from Andrei Shevchenko and Michael Essien dragged Chelsea through. It was the kind of comeback that we thought Chelsea might never pull off again until the turnaround against Napoli.
Lampard was blunt about Chelsea yesterday. "There is no more room for slip-ups," he said in relation to Chelsea's league position. If they fail to make up the gap to Spurs and Arsenal to claim one of the Champions League places then nights such as tonight, at one of the most famous clubs in the history of European football, will be a thing of the past until this team is rebuilt.
Appointing a new manager, not to mention attracting players of the calibre that Abramovich is accustomed to signing, will be a far greater challenge if they are playing in the Europa League. Over the years, Chelsea had grown accustomed to playing ties such as these and in all but a few cases they went into games expecting to win, with the expectation that winning the trophy itself would only be a matter of time.
Judging by Lampard's mood yesterday, that is no longer the attitude towards the Champions League at Chelsea. They are playing for their survival in the competition this season and the next.
Three key confrontations: Where tonight's match will be won and lost
Oscar Cardozo v David Luiz: The Chelsea centre-back's inconsistencies this season mean he has come under increasing pressure for his place from Gary Cahill. He will know Paraguayan international Cardozo well from his years at Benfica and will be detailed to neutralise the effect of Cardozo's prolific left foot.
Javi Garcia v Frank Lampard: A former Real Madrid defensive midfielder, Garcia will be positioned just in front of a stern Benfica defence and can also operate as a central defender. An ageing Lampard will find it a challenge breaking down the barrier posed by the robust 25-year-old as he seeks to offer his usual goal threat.
Luisao v Didier Drogba: Despite a slowing of his play, Chel-sea's Ivorian forward has enjoyed better fortunes in Europe, and returned to something approach-ing his best in orchestrating the comeback against Napoli. At 6ft 4in, the Brazilian Luisao can match Drogba's aerial prowess and is also a danger at free-kicks.Reuse content