When you consider Chelsea’s gifted squad of players, their world-class manager, and indeed their unrivalled record in recent seasons, any suggestions of struggle feels unwarranted.
However, with a handful of key injury doubts coupled with a taxing fixture schedule, there now appears to be genuine reason for England’s most dominant club side to be concerned.
And when you consider their opposition for this week’s Champions League Round of 16 clash — an Atlético Madrid side who have twice conquered Chelsea’s most feared opposition, Man City — there is even more reason to be fearful.
Emma Hayes' side's indifferent European away record doesn’t exactly make for happy reading either, especially when they’re being confronted by a club who has won three of the last four Liga Iberdrola titles.
Chelsea have a plethora of outstanding talent within their ranks, but few have made more of an impact this season than the duo of Fran Kirby and Millie Bright.
Kirby has more goal contributions than any other player in the WSL this season — 17 in total — while Bright has forged an imposing centre-back partnership with captain Magdalena Eriksson, with Chelsea boasting the best defensive record in the league.
However, both Kirby and Bright are injury doubts for Wednesday’s first leg after withdrawing from England’s training camp prior to the game against Northern Ireland.
The extent of each player's problem is unknown at this stage. A statement from England revealed Bright had returned to Chelsea for treatment, while Kirby sustained her knock in the 5-0 win over Bristol City.
If the two fail to recover in time, Chelsea will be without a first-choice forward and a starting centre-back — turning their palpably intimidating starting XI into what could be an uncharacteristically vulnerable side.
Kirby’s potential absence, though undesired, is perhaps not as significant when you consider Chelsea’s wealth of attacking options: Erin Cuthbert or Ji So-Yun could both feasibly slot into wide positions. Alternatively, Hayes could opt for a trio of Sam Kerr, Pernille Harder and Bethany England as a front three.
More pertinent, though, is the prospect of losing Bright in defence. Sophie Ingle has sometimes filled in as a centre-back, as has Hannah Blundell, but It seems no coincidence that Bright was absent from Chelsea’s only league defeat this season at home to Brighton.
The Atlético game will mark the start of five games in 14 days for Chelsea, which includes a League Cup Final against Bristol City. Will Emma Hayes risk rushing back her star players as she bids for her first Champions League title as a manager? Or will she trust in the depth of her squad to get the job done in their absence?
Despite a stellar domestic record in recent times, Chelsea’s underwhelming Champions League results since 2015 have been somewhat disregarded, given the calibre of the opposition that’s eliminated them.
For three successive seasons from 2015–2018, it was two-time European champions Wolfsburg who got the better of them, while in 2019, it was current holders and seven-time winners Lyon who outclassed the Blues over two legs.
While disappointing, these results have never been scrutinised too intensely — but closer examination of Chelsea’s other European opponents during this time reveals a rather mediocre away record.
Twelve European away days across the last five years have yielded six wins, five defeats and one draw. Aggregate wins over Bayern Munich in 2018 and Paris Saint-Germain the following year were not without away losses, while three trips to the AOK Stadion across consecutive years brought with them just one draw and a single goal.
In a way, Chelsea can consider themselves fortunate this year. They will not face an away trip to Madrid because of the impact of COVID-19 in Spain, and will instead travel to the Stadio Brianteo, home of AC Monza in Italy.
Nor will fans be there to cheer Atlético on — the side with the highest ever attendance (60,739 against Barcelona) for a top-flight domestic women’s game in Europe.
Nonetheless, Chelsea will still have to travel abroad next week, still have to face unfamiliar opposition, and still have to deal with the lingering memory of failed European campaigns. For these reasons, Wednesday’s first leg is beginning to look all the more pivotal.
Brazilian forward Ludmilla da Silva has tormented Man City for two years running now, as Atlético eliminated the English club from the Champions League in both 2018 and 2019. A devastating dribbler with pace, power, and precision finishing, Ludmilla is regarded as one of the most skillful players in world football.
This season, she has already scored 14 goals in all competitions, including four in one game against Deportivo. Should Bright be ruled out, Ludmilla will surely look to exploit the makeshift defence.
And, as if the threat of the South American international wasn’t enough, Chelsea will likely be forced to contend with young Venezuelan international Deyna Castellanos too, another who is already into double-figures for goals this season.
So, are Chelsea still favourites heading into this tie? On balance, the answer is probably yes. Evidently, any side with Pernille Harder and Sam Kerr in the same XI is likely to pose a definite threat, even with other favoured names missing.
However, with potential injuries, a gruelling fixture list, and a leg abroad in unknown territory, there is a distinct possibility that Chelsea could indeed struggle.
And if, for the third year running, Atlético successfully manage to vanquish another English side, then Chelsea’s season could well descend into an un-envisaged anticlimax.