Calling it: Chelsea to fulfil European expectations despite looming Morata exit

Chelsea FC are in transition once again. Here, we take a look at the year just gone and what lies ahead at Stamford Bridge in 2019.

Just eighteen months ago, Chelsea were basking in the rediscovery of their own ‘fear factor’ under Antonio Conte, having fallen just one reversed defeat short of breaking the club’s existing record Premier League points tally. However, by Christmas 2017, all hopes of retaining the title had fallen firmly by the wayside.

With Diego Costa departing on New Years’ Day 2018 and Michy Batshuayi out of favour, Alvaro Morata suddenly found himself as the only recognised striker in the side under the age of thirty. Against all better judgement, he would have to become the target man that Antonio Conte wanted to utilise in order to benefit star all-rounder Eden Hazard. Sadly, Chelsea won just once in January 2018 and lost by three-goal margins at home to Bournemouth and away to Watford.

February was little better, with Chelsea losing all three matches against the teams that would finish on the podium, with a first home loss to Tottenham since 1990 being part of that sequence. A revival in the spring, culminating in yet another FA Cup win at the new Wembley, seemed more of a hollow afterthought.

Little seems to have improved in the West End, and with Chelsea once more seemingly out of the title race, what does 2019 have in store for Maurizio Sarri’s men?

Europa League – win or bust

A Europa League win for Chelsea seems to be very much a part of the club’s agenda in 2019. As seen above, the Blues last lifted the trophy in 2013. The validity of Chelsea’s credentials for a top-four finish in the Premier League seems to hinge on the result of the upcoming derby at the Emirates Stadium. Win it, and the top-four finish is all but sealed, given that Arsenal may feel the need to focus entirely on re-entry into the Champions League via a Europa League triumph should they go six points adrift of fourth.

Where Chelsea’s own Europa League aspirations are concerned, Sarri will need as many able players as possible to win it. Those devoted to finding the best football betting odds know that shopping around is a vital weapon in your betting armoury, and Chelsea certainly have the odds firmly in their favour, with Malmo awaiting Chelsea in the round of 32. Indeed, Malmo have never got the better of any English side over two legs in a UEFA competition, and Chelsea will want to keep that run going, lest the doubts surrounding them be provoked afresh.

Ultimately, a quarter-final berth and a fourth-place league finish – or a Europa League triumph and a finish anywhere in the top six – is the very minimum requirement for Sarri’s first season at Stamford Bridge to be considered a success. Barring a particularly bad flashpoint, the Blues should have free choice between the two. There is also the added necessity of settling the dressing room, amidst the uncertainty surrounding a certain Spaniard who has thus far failed to deliver what he once promised so readily.

Morata to go – but when?

Despite Alvaro Morata having bagged a brace against Nottingham Forest in an easy FA Cup third-round win back on 5 January, he remains a hot tip to head for the exit door. In the summer of 2017, Alvaro Morata brought £60m worth of pure talent from Real Madrid after winning the Champions League for the second time in his relatively short career. Yet, he remains a divisive figure at Stamford Bridge after becoming a byword for inconsistency.

As is traditional for January, the list of potential destinations ranges from the reasonable to the ridiculous, but with Morata reportedly refusing an approach from Bundesliga leaders Borussia Dortmund, the Spaniard’s exodus may well be a less straightforward process than first imagined. His desire to hold out for a move to Italy, potentially to join Gennaro Gattuso’s for-now staggered ‘revolution’ at AC Milan, indicates that he isn’t superlatively desperate to depart.

Giroud will also turn thirty-three in September, making the likelihood of a minor, short-term crisis in the final third all the more probable. Even so, Sarri has ruled out making a striker his number-one priority, with recent links to Gonzalo Higuain and Callum Wilson recently being doused almost as quickly as they surfaced.

Unbelievably for some, Sarri believes that Chelsea’s main weakness lies within the delivery into the box, with links to wingers more readily emerging into the second week of January. Common sense dictates that Sarri will only entertain signing a striker if Morata moves, and so the striker will likely hold on until the summer – even if he is now very much on his final chance to impress.