ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003 with the aim of achieving world domination and this week, two matches stand between the Blues and realising that dream.
The Club World Cup might occupy a curious place in both the calendar and the public consciousness, but it remains the best arbiter in determining the greatest side on the planet. The champions of six continents, plus representatives from the host nation, battle it out to earn the moniker “world champions,” a huge trophy and a $5million first prize.
It also remains the only trophy Abramovich has never won. Chelsea were beaten finalists in 2012 on their only previous appearance, and the club’s currently longest-serving player remembers it only too well.
“It was my first season, we were in every competition, maybe it looked like it was easier than it is,” said Cezar Azpilicueta, who joined the club almost a decade ago from Marseille. “And then with time you realise how difficult it is, first of all to qualify in the Premier League for the Champions League, and then go all the way to win that, and then to be here.
“It hurt a lot to lose that one in 2012, and to win it for the first time for the club would be huge. It has a great meaning for everybody, for the fans, we are representing Europe, and after all the journey that we had to make it here, we have to give everything, first tomorrow and then go step by step, because we know it is going to be difficult.”
Except that the Club World Cup isn’t usually that difficult for the European representative. Since the competition was rebranded from the Intercontinental Cup in 2000, 13 of the 17 finals staged have been won by the UEFA Champions League representative, including all eight since Chelsea lost to Brazilian side Corinthians. That sense of expectation — particularly around Wednesday’s semi-final against Al-Hilal, a Saudi-Arabian side who were arguably best-known in London for their audacious attempt to sign Arsenal striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang during the January transfer window — distorts the value of succeeding in the United Arab Emirates over the next four days for some.
Not for Azpilicueta.
“This kind of tournament is not like a normal cup you play every year,” he said. “Every competition we enter we want to win and this is a rare one we’ve not played for 10 years. Everyone is aware how difficult it is and that we can’t miss the chance.”
Copa Libertadores winners Palmeiras will offer sterner resistance should Chelsea progress as expected on Wednesday, but before then, the Blues must rediscover the authority in their football that’s been absent either side of the winter break. They needed extra-time and a late penalty save from Kepa Arrizabalaga to beat League One Plymouth Argyle and progress to the fourth round of the FA Cup. Prior to that match, head coach Thomas Tuchel stressed how vital the hiatus had been in recharging drained batteries, though a 3,402-mile flight to the Middle East has tested that fresh feeling.
Chelsea made the six-hour journey late on Saturday night without Tuchel — who is isolating after testing positive for Covid-19 — and first-team coach Zsolt Low subsequently suggested several players have struggled to sleep as they reshuffle their training plan to accommodate the four-hour time difference.
The 22-man squad, accompanied by Reece James as he steps up his recovery from a hamstring injury, have made the most of the impressive facilities at their Ritz Carlton hotel base, housed in the shadow of the imposing Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the third largest mosque in the world, capable of accommodating 41,000 worshippers at once. A short warm-down session on Sunday evening preceded a more intense Monday outing in mild temperatures (around 20 degrees Celsius/70 degrees Fahrenheit), a pleasant removal from London’s single-figure frost. Tuesday’s final session took place at a breezy Mohammed bin Sayed Stadium on Tuesday evening with technical and performance director Petr Cech playing a more prominent role than usual in Tuchel’s absence.
Around 15 minutes in, the sounds of a robust breeze driving through the stadium’s open corners gave way to the daily sunset call to prayer ringing out from another nearby mosque. It has become a customary soundtrack to their preparations, but a dash to the region at this time of year is more commonly associated with an Instagram-friendly break in neighbouring Dubai than a chance to claim technically the biggest prize in club football.
There is also the sense within the Chelsea camp that more season-defining challenges await. Winning the Club World Cup, for example, may not be enough to offset a terminal decline in their Premier League form, while the FA Cup and a Carabao Cup Final feature on the fixture list this month.
In fact, Chelsea will become the first English top-flight team to play in five competitions in the space of 23 days, surpassing Liverpool’s 27-day record across December 2019 and January 2020. The hope is that Abu Dhabi can provide a catalyst for a revived challenge on multiple fronts.
Tuchel is aiming to fly out in the coming days to help bolster their efforts, restricted (for now) to a series of video and voice calls in addition to watching recordings of training sessions. Low says Tuchel has stayed on London time, happy to “wake up at 6 a.m. if we need him.” Chelsea are also exploring the possibility of Tuchel holding a virtual team-talk in the team hotel prior to kick-off, while also remaining in communication with him during the semifinal to orchestrate any in-game changes. It would be another notable achievement for Tuchel if he can deliver the one prize missing from Abramovich’s near two decades of success: 17 trophies in 19 years have led to this.
Yet as curious as it may seem, Chelsea need to do so while also offering greater hope for the future. Romelu Lukaku’s indifferent form continues, despite claims that the fall-out from his unsanctioned Sky Italy interview is firmly the past. One goal in seven games since then suggests otherwise, but a global stage presents an opportunity for rejuvenation.
Timo Werner and Kai Havertz are struggling in their supporting roles up front too, while Kepa Arrizabalaga will hope to continue his personal rehabilitation as Edouard Mendy recovers from Senegal’s Africa Cup of Nations success and lively celebrations.
Around 1,500 Chelsea fans from the club’s supporters’ groups have made the trip in anticipation of a crowning glory. It remains to be seen whether Abramovich joins them — the Russian billionaire tends to shroud these things in secrecy until the last moment — but witnessing the chance to complete a journey that’s cost him around £2 billion so far may well be too much to resist.