Chelsea must learn Premier League lesson

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With a flash of Papiss Cisse's right boot, Chelsea were shunted out of the race for the top four. Roberto Di Matteo's decision to rest key players harked back to the days of Andre Villas-Boas, as did the result at the final whistle.

While the interim manager has breathed new life into a stagnant Chelsea side, the inescapable conclusion of Wednesday night's defeat was that the Blues are regressing rather than progressing.

As magnificent as their recent run has been, the fact remains that this season, taken as whole, reflects the gradual decline of a once-great side. Perhaps AVB was too hasty, too heavy-handed and too rash in consigning the likes of Lampard, Cole and Drogba to the bench, but he was certainly moving the side in the right direction.

Di Matteo's presence has stimulated a resurgence at Stamford Bridge, but one that feels like a temporary phenomena rather than one with any lasting impact. The former-Chelsea midfielder has squeezed the last drops of effort and ability from the Blues, guiding them to within reach of a famous FA Cup and Champions League double.

But as Liverpool have demonstrated, success in the cup competitions can be deceiving. The knock-out drama of a Champions League or FA Cup semi-final favours experienced heads, of which Chelsea have plenty.

The daily grind of a Premier League season, however, is the true indicator of a team's ability. After a 38-game season, you will always finish where you deserve to.

Unlucky bobbles, dodgy decisions, injuries and suspensions will affect each side over the course of a campaign. Ultimately a team's performances week-in, week-out, will determine their rightful resting place. For Chelsea, that is firmly outside the top four.

Their lethargic display against Newcastle betrayed the effects of energy-sapping semi-finals and a hectic schedule of Premier League fixtures. Chelsea's squad is getting old, Lampard, Terry, Drogba and Cole, the whole spine of the team, will have to be replaced sooner rather than later.

The difficulty AVB found was in balancing the contributions of these ageing, but still talented, stars and the younger generation of Chelsea talent, of which there are several bright lights.

Ryan Bertrand again demonstrated his ability last night and looks to be a ready-made replacement for Ashley Cole, whilst the purchase of Juan Mata was an excellent piece of business.

But Di Matteo, or whoever gets the job, needs to assess the squad and make a fundamental decision on the future of the club. The older generation is either blocking the path for players like Gael Kakuta, Jeffrey Bruma, Patrick van Aanholt and Josh McEachran, or else the youngsters are just not good enough.

At the moment, the Blues lack a compelling vision of where the club will be next year and the year after, a consequence of the owner's demand for immediate results. Everything at Stamford Bridge is geared towards short-termism, a function of an ageing squad running out of time to win medals and an owner used to quick-fixes and a full trophy cabinet.

Chelsea may yet end the season with an FA Cup and Champions League, a fantastic achievement. Unfortunately for the Blues, the player's which carried Ancelotti and Mourinho's sides to glory are now surrounded by a much less talented supporting cast.

The managerial merry-go-round at the Bridge has produced a patchwork squad and the team lacks a spine to build around going forward.

Winning trophies should not get in the way of making difficult decisions. In fact, it is often the best time to make changes. Teams cannot win every year and football's top sides will experience peaks and troughs. Therefore, a manager's most difficult task is often minimising the length of time between trophyless seasons - just ask Arsene Wenger.

The Gunners won their last trophy at the 2005 FA Cup. In the following two seasons they lost Robert Pires, Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Freddie Ljundberg, Gilberto Silva and Sol Campbell. Having gone unbeaten during the 2003-04 season, the mass exodus from north London meant the Gunners finished 12 points off the leaders a year later and a massive 24 points off top spot in 2005-6.

Except for the emergence of Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie, Arsenal failed to replace the core of their side and have suffered since.

Chelsea should heed the lessons of their north London rivals and plan ahead, otherwise they risk a costly scramble to replace old heads. They have earned the unique opportunity to salvage a nightmare season and turn it into a successful one and they shouldn't waste it.

However, unless Abramovich embraces change and considers life beyond Terry, Drogba and Lampard, his west London project risks years of transitional, trophyless seasons just like Arsenal. The league doesn't lie, Chelsea are England's sixth best club.

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Ashley Cole
Premier League
Juan Mata
Roberto Di Matteo
Ryan Bertrand

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