It is one of those quirks of football that Chelsea supporters will come to look back on the season with their worst League record for 10 years as one of the proudest in the club's long history. The year 2012 will be etched in the memory of everyone for whom blue is the colour, along with Jose Mourinho's first championship of 2005 (after a 50-year gap) and the first FA Cup win of 1970. Even Carlo Ancelotti's Double two years ago – an undeniably greater achievement – is likely to be emotionally eclipsed by the triumph that no one could deliver to Stamford Bridge until Roberto Di Matteo's under-strength team somehow beat Bayern Munich in their own backyard to become champions of Europe.
There was a time, of course, and within the lifespan of the Premier League, when such success was not dreamed of, and sixth place was an accomplishment in itself. Craig Burley remembers it well. In his seven seasons as a first-team player, which began with a 7-0 defeat by Nottingham Forest, Chelsea made the top once – just before Ruud Gullit sold him to Celtic in the summer of 1997.
"It was just the start of things," is the main satisfaction he can draw from that period. "When I was there under Glenn [Hoddle] you suddenly saw it changing, with Gullit, Mark Hughes, Gianfranco Zola, a conveyor belt of better players. And it was a very family-friendly and homely club. I'm not sure it's in that bracket today."
It is the new ruthlessness of the Roman Abramovich era, which did for Mourinho, Ancelotti and the rest, that leads Burley to believe that Di Matteo, who begins his first full season in charge of Chelsea at Wigan Athletic today, is effectively no more than a caretaker. "There's still a school of thought that he might be keeping that seat warm for somebody, and there lies the problem. I don't think they really believe that he's the man to completely change the whole thing."
The trick that Andre Villas-Boas was unable to pull off was to revamp an ageing squad while remaining in contention for the big prizes. Di Matteo, taking over from him at the start of March, actually had a marginally worse record in terms of League points per game, but delivered the FA Cup and, against all the odds against Barcelona and Bayern, the Champions' League too.
"You can't argue against the results," Burley says, "but even the most ardent Chelsea fan's got to admit that there was an unbelievable amount of luck involved. When you think about [Lionel] Messi missing a penalty, then [Arjen] Robben missing a penalty and the way the other teams bossed those games, and Chelsea got away with it. I don't think Di Matteo is for the long term. It was a magnificent achievement and raised his stock massively. I just think it'll be difficult for him this year."
The revamping has continued, at exorbitant cost, and its success will depend on whether Eden Hazard, Oscar and Marko Marin settle at Chelsea more convincingly than players such as Romelu Lukaku (signed for an initial £10.7 million, now on loan at West Bromwich Albion) or Fabio Borini (given away free last summer, now bought by Liverpool for £10m). Of the older guard, John Terry is still under investigation by the Football Association and Frank Lampard, Burley believes, will have to pace himself, both during games and over the season. He says of the enigma that is Fernando Torres: "I honestly cannot see him getting back to how he was 18 months ago. He's got better but that's still a million miles off where Chelsea need him to be. Knock the ball past the centre-half and he used to outpace him. I don't see him doing that for the past 12 months and that's not down to confidence. He's just lost that."
As for Chelsea, Burley's assessment is blunt: "I just don't think they'll be strong enough to challenge the two Manchester clubs," he says.
Craig Burley was speaking ahead of ESPN's live coverage of the Barclays Premier League this season. Visit: www.espn.co.uk/tv
Wigan v Chelsea is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 1.30pm