The new normal: Chelsea winning the Champions League made a strange kind of sense at the end of a bewildering season across Europe
Paris lost the title for the first time in four years to a side whose collective salary is dwarfed by Neymar's alone. Juventus had Cristiano Ronaldo handing them hatfuls of goals atop the scoring charts and not only failed to win Serie A for the first time in ten years, but had to rely on a final-day result elsewhere to avoid the ignominy of missing out on the Champions League by finishing outside the top four.
Real Madrid and Barcelona both had La Liga in their own hands in the final weeks of the season, then blew it against opponents they would probably have pleaded to face had they been given the option to pick their own hurdles in the title race. Liverpool looked likely to retain the Premier League crown they won in such style last season until almost the midpoint of their defense, only for that most unlikely of afflictions, a 7-0 away win in their favor, to herald the start of a run so remarkably disastrous that it included six straight home defeats at an empty stadium where they had gone 68 games unbeaten until late January.
Forced to identify a team who encapsulated this strange, calendar-cramming, frequently unfathomable season, you might point to Chelsea. Among their wild oscillations, there was the hope afforded by spending hundreds of millions of dollars last year, the early promise of a team that hit a formidable early-season groove, an abrupt dive towards midtable that facilitated the gloomy sacking of beleaguered club legend Frank Lampard, and the quickly-arranged arrival of Thomas Tuchel, who himself has been on a vertiginous rollercoaster, starting with being sacked by PSG four months after taking them to last year's Champions League final.
Performances swiftly and noticeably improved under Tuchel, helped by a long unbeaten run to start his tenure. That ended with a demonstration of their continued capacity for calamity with a 5-2 defeat at home to a West Brom side who were comfortably relegated.
Chelsea could easily have ended up with no more prizes than they were on a clear trajectory towards during the final month of Lampard's leadership. They lost the FA Cup final with a whimper to Leicester, then relied on the Foxes – always dangerous, but with considerably fewer resources than Tuchel has – losing at home to Tottenham on the final day of the season to see Chelsea into the Champions League qualification spots.
Spurs had topped the table at one point, then plummeted so badly that Daniel Levy broke off his love affair with Jose Mourinho to the tune of a reportedly huge pay-off. Mourinho did, however, do his first club in England an inadvertent favor by signing Gareth Bale for a second spell at Spurs, who repaid part of his vast wages with a late-season run of form including two goals in the win at Leicester that confirmed Chelsea's top-four finish.
Chelsea have announced that Gareth Bale has won their Player of The Season award after he has secured Champions League football for Chelsea.🤣🤣 pic.twitter.com/uP8Frc5Loy— PF | Transfer News (@PurelyFootball) May 23, 2021
On-loan Bale left behind a Real Madrid side who underperformed at critical moments, suffering the loss of their title to Atletico Madrid – the team Chelsea beat with unnerving confidence in the Champions League round of 16 – and an extension of boss Zinedine Zidane's winless run against Tuchel to six matches as they were ousted in the Champions League semi-finals.
By the standards of the man who won the Champions League every season with Madrid between 2015 and 2018, that was enough to stir a prompt, typically enigmatic departure by Zidane. At Barca, Ronald Koeman is in an improbable end-of-season stand-off with new club president Joan Laporta, whose claims that the manager suffered an anxiety attack last week have been denied by the Dutchman's representatives.
⁉️ The Koeman 'Situation' explained:1. Reports yesterday said Koeman went to the hospital due to anxiety2. Today, Laporta said he knows Koeman went to the hospital & didn't want to stress him.3. Koeman's agent and management are now ‘bashing’ Laporta for his comments today. pic.twitter.com/Nz5epGRN3J— infosfcb (@infosfcb) May 28, 2021
Koeman could be forgiven for frayed nerves. Lionel Messi's future remains not entirely certain. Like Madrid, Barcelona face staggering debts.
The European Super League, with its protests, immediate about-turns and fury, failed to achieve the promise it held for the arch-rivals – not to mention financially lumbered Atletico – of cosily engineering their financial redemption.
9:23pm: Man City withdraw from Super League10:55pm: Arsenal withdraw from Super League10:55pm: Liverpool withdraw from Super League10:55pm: Tottenham withdraw from Super League10:56pm: Man Utd withdraw from Super League00:51am: Chelsea withdraw from Super LeagueWhat a day. pic.twitter.com/OxTeRsPCxr— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) April 21, 2021
Barcelona were blasted out of the Champions League courtesy of a 4-1 home defeat to PSG when Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and friends looked like they deserved their stratospheric hype. They, too, self-combusted, passing up points so many times at home that their surge to surpass ultra-consistent, ultra-impressive Lille, which had been considered a formality by many in light of the levels of expectation and investment at Paris, never materialized.
On their way to a limp semi-final defeat to Manchester City, PSG avenged their previous agony against Manchester United with a win that set their opponents on the way to crashing out of the competition courtesy of failing to win either of their final two group stage games.
Paul Scholes 🗣️: "You're playing Villarreal here. You're playing a team that finished seventh in a really poor La Liga." "Think of Real Madrid and Barcelona, how bad have they been?" "Manchester United should win this game comfortably." pic.twitter.com/GQcp1tdmWR— SPORTbible (@sportbible) May 26, 2021
A loss at Leipzig condemned United to the Europa League, where they lost a drab final to Villarreal after goalkeeper David De Gea's unsuccessful penalty – the 22nd of the shootout.
United's average number of goals per game in the Champions League was only beaten by Bayern Munich, and their away form in the top flight was exceptional, helping them to a second-placed Premier League finish that was above expectations. Their search for silverware, though, goes on, and they were never realistically in sight of a City side that devoured the division on a sublime run in the second half of the season.
As City veered off into the distance, United and Chelsea still managed to remind them of their presence by earning wins at the City of Manchester Stadium. Yet it would still have taken considerable bravery to back Chelsea in the Champions League final, facing opposition who had finished 19 points ahead of them.
That they won as underdogs with a goal from Kai Havertz, the record signing held back for seemingly interminable sections of this season by illness and frozen form, seemed a little far-fetched in itself, if only because it was his first ever Champions League goal. Fairytales are few and far between in encounters between teams built with billions, but the club who had been left in the dust by City domestically and lost three games in 11 days at the end of their campaign provided one final twist to thwart the title-winning machine.
There will be more to come in August, not to mention the start of Euro 2020 in less than two weeks. Tuchel talked of a contract extension on the pitch after his finest hour as a manager so far, only serving to evoke memories of Mourinho winning the league at a canter with Chelsea before being sacked with the relegation zone a point away seven months later.
Mauricio Pochettino, Tuchel's successor at Paris, could replace Mourinho by returning to Spurs. How that will play out, given how he was sacked by Tottenham less than two years ago, is enough of an imponderable before the question of what it would mean for PSG's attempt to restore themselves in France and Europe.
Pochettino has managed to guide PSG to a 2nd place finish in a one team league.You can take the man out of Spurs but not the Spurs out of the man. 😂 pic.twitter.com/wpY64kqEXY— Football Trolls (@FootballlTrolls) May 24, 2021
Lille's managerial hero, Christophe Galtier, has already left the club. Madrid need a new coach and Barcelona – possibly without Messi – may well do too. Juventus have turned back to old flame Max Allegri after sacking Andrea Pirlo, and will anticipate keeping hold of Ronaldo in pursuit of providing a more realistic challenge next season to Inter Milan, who have just been deserted by Antonio Conte and could sell talisman Romelu Lukaku to Chelsea, should rumors be believed.
All of which guarantees the necessary levels of pre-season chaos if the merely unpredictable is to become the borderline surreal again next time around. For better or worse, it feels unlikely we will witness many seasons like this one again. Just don't tell Tuchel how long most of his recent predecessors have lasted after winning their first Chelsea trophy.
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