Thomas Tuchel admits Chelsea are fighting to “survive” as the struggling Champions League holders prepare for Lille in the last 16 first leg on Tuesday.
Tuchel’s side have won their last five games in all competitions, but there was little joy on the German’s face as he reflected on Saturday’s 1-0 win over Crystal Palace.
The honeymoon is definitely over for Tuchel as he nears the business end of his first full season as Chelsea boss.
In just five months in charge last season, Tuchel led Chelsea to the Champions League crown and FA Cup final, as well as a top four finish in the Premier League.
When Romelu Lukaku was taken from Inter Milan for a club-record £97 million ($131 million), the Belgian striker was expected to help Chelsea enjoy a period of continued dominance.
Chelsea were tipped to emerge as serious contenders for the Premier League title and in the early weeks of this season it looked like they could live up to the hype.
But in the throes of a windy winter in Britain, Tuchel found it increasingly difficult to keep Chelsea from drifting off course.
The first signs of discontent behind the scenes emerged when Lukaku went public with complaints about how he was being deployed by Tuchel.
Lukaku has been forced to apologise, but has since kept a desolate figure and has been without a league goal since December.
Completely anonymous against Palace, Lukaku had just seven touches – the lowest for a player in 90 minutes since Opta began recording the stat in 2003-04.
That win over Palace was only Chelsea’s third in their last nine league games, a dismal streak that effectively shattered their title hopes.
Chelsea are 13 points behind leaders Manchester City, making keeping the Champions League their main goal for the rest of the season.
– Chelsea has a cold –
Somehow it was fitting that Tuchel revealed after the Palace game that six of his players had a cold on the flight back from Abu Dhabi, where Chelsea recently won the Club World Cup.
Even winning that league for the first time in Chelsea’s history felt like some sort of pyrrhic victory for Tuchel.
The Blues worked hard for their wins against Al-Hilal and Palmeiras in Abu Dhabi and it was more of the same when they returned to domestic action at Selhurst Park.
Unable to find rhythm, Chelsea needed a last minute goal from Hakim Ziyech to consolidate third place.
Amid rumors that some of the squad are unhappy with senior stars like Cesar Azpilicueta and Antonio Rudiger not yet signed on to new contracts, Tuchel is looking for a winning formula.
Closing out his favored 3-4-3 fullback formation, he went with a flatback four to Palace, but while the result was positive, he admitted there is still a lot of room for improvement.
“We are trying to survive right now and you can see it. There’s a lot of pressure when you go to a Club World Cup and want to win it for Chelsea,” he said.
“The players put a lot of pressure on themselves and then we didn’t play the Premier League for four weeks.
“It’s a huge and strange mix of a lot of reasons why I personally didn’t expect too much from today’s performance. I know we can play better, I want to play better.”
Two crucial games this week will serve as a barometer of Chelsea’s morale.
If they win their European assignment against Lille at Stamford Bridge, then beat Liverpool in Sunday’s League Cup final at Wembley, the atmosphere around Chelsea will be more uplifting.
But a few negative results would only reinforce the impression that not all is well.
“Of course it’s difficult, but that’s why you play football, to win trophies,” Ziyech said.
“That’s what we’re trying to do. We’ve already won two this season and have more to go.”