The competition, for all its prestige as the greatest event in the club game, only occasionally rewards the greatest on the continent. As a knockout, it really rewards good – and usually rich – clubs coming to form at the right time, and getting the breaks.
This describes a number of teams in the last few years. There’s Real Madrid, 2014, 2016 and 2018, Liverpool 2005, Porto 2004, Milan 2003 and 2007 and – pointedly – Chelsea 2012.
Could Chelsea 2021 be added to that list? They have more ingredients than most, including that form.
For one, they also one of the strongest squads in Europe, and maybe the best. The reality is they should have been challenging for the title after that summer, which is why Thomas Tuchel has replaced Frank Lampard in the first place. So, they may not be domestic title winners this season, but they certainly have the potential.
Even if they are just back in the top four, too, there is the feeling that they are capable of staying there fairly comfortably. That is one of the values of strength in depth, and the variety of top-quality options available to Tuchel. They are going to be less susceptible to fatigue, in a season that is going to gradually get more and more testing.
The real key to that is that could end up meaning Chelsea are able to prioritise Europe in a way other clubs under pressure aren’t.
There are then some of the improvements that really win Champions League games. Timo Werner has at last scored, and the suggestion is he is finding form. Tuchel also seems to be able to make great use of the amount of attacking weapons available to him, suddenly able to bring in a completely different player – like, say, Hakim Ziyech for Christian Pulisic – to suit the circumstances.
A side like Atletico Madrid of course provide a particularly difficult set of circumstances, which was one reason Tuchel was unwilling to elaborate on how primed Chelsea are for the competition, or look beyond that last-16 match.
“You need to ask me next Monday,” he said. “We will be prepared and hopefully I will tell you that we are well prepared. We will do everything to go through but you know very well that Atletico are top of the league and are by far the top of the league in Spain. They are one of the toughest teams in Spain and are still a challenge. It is a two-match elimination as you know well.
“We will focus on Southampton and the best way to arrive in the Champions League with a good performance. Hopefully another win, we will see on Monday who we can count on and who is ready to play.
“We are self-confident enough to say we play these two games to get to the next round but it will be super hard.”
This is something else that has been encouraging about Tuchel’s time, though. They look so rigorously prepared for every individual game, which only builds that momentum.
This was something he did elaborate on.
“We worked hard for this momentum. The players have worked incredibly hard to win all these games in a row and it will not stop. That’s the bad news, but everybody is prepared for that.
“Everybody who signs for Chelsea wants to have this competition and the challenge is now to keep on going. But we can look at our performance, determination and hunger to not allow anybody to drop to 99% performance levels.”
If that’s the case, they have a good chance at actually going and winning the Champions League. They could well be its dark horses.
They have one of Europe’s best squads, look relatively fresh, and are in the right form.
Their ambitions certainly should go beyond just staying in the Champions League places.