It’s a simple question, but not one with a simple answer:
Is Chelsea a contender in the Champions League?
It’s tempting to look at a season full of drama — the poor domestic form, coaching turmoil and the dramatic dip in form from star players — and say no way.
But sports are rarely so cut and dried.
While it certainly isn’t a favorite, I think Chelsea, which starts its round of 16 tie with Paris Saint-Germain this week, is absolutely a contender for the Champions League crown. Here are a few reasons why:
The only path forward — Sitting in 12th place in the Barclays Premier League, the Blues are 16 points out of a Champions League spot with just 12 matches left to play. That means that qualifying for next year’s Champions League through the usual top-four route is likely out of reach.
However, Chelsea can earn a spot in the 2016-2017 Champions League by winning this years cup. That’s a rather large carrot to place in front of a European footballer.
Looking up lately — The start of the season was an unmitigated disaster, but after Saturday’s 5-1 thrashing of Newcastle, the Blues are unbeaten in 12 matches in all competitions. The pessimist would say that six of those matches were draws, while an optimist would point out that it’s hard to be knocked out of a cup competition if you’re not losing matches.
After all, a 1-1 draw in Paris and a 0-0 draw in London would see the Blues through on goal difference.
A new role — Chelsea hasn’t responded well to being the hunted this season. That is not the situation its facing against PSG. The French side are squarely in the role of favorites, and will be feeling the pressure to knock out an underachieving English side.
That means that the Blues, and manager Guus Hiddink, are free to park the bus for the entire 180 minutes of this tie and force Zlatan Ibrahimovic and company to break them down. The fact that the first match of the tie is in Paris is an advantage for Chelsea, too. No matter what happens on Tuesday, it will know the result it needs to advance when the teams meet again on March 9.
So, go ahead. Write off Chelsea.
The Blues may just end up having the last laugh.