The FIFA Club World Cup: Can Chelsea correct their mistakes from a decade ago to complete the collection?

Sagarneel Chakraborty
By Sagarneel Chakraborty
13 Min Read
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It really is no exaggeration to say that Chelsea have “won the lot” since the turn of the century. The Blues have won every single competition that they have taken part in since the takeover of the club by Roman Abramovich – all but for the exception of one. The elusive silverware in question is none other than the FIFA Club World Cup – a club competition that pits the best clubs of each continent against each other to crown the winner as the “best club in the world.”

Chelsea travelled to the 2012 FIFA Club World Cup in Tokyo as the champions of Europe and the outright favourites. While they got past the CONCACAF champions Monterrey by a 3-1 margin, the final against CONMEBOL champions Corinthians proved to be too big of a hurdle. It was Paolo Guerrero whose goal won it for the Brazilian outfit as Gary Cahill was sent off for the English side, and Chelsea were second best on an occasion they thought was meant for them.

Ten years down the line, the Blues have travelled to Abu Dhabi as the champions of Europe in an attempt to win the Club World Cup for the first time in their history. After getting the chance to represent the continent courtesy of their UEFA Champions League-winning campaign, the West London outfit have the opportunity to rectify their mistake from a decade ago – but it will not be easy if they are not at their best and there is even an ounce of complacency in the squad.

While the context surrounding the 2012 loss is noteworthy – Chelsea were reeling off Roberto Di Matteo’s sacking as they travelled to Japan under the interim management of Rafael Benitez – it still went down as a missed opportunity to win the final piece of silverware that has eluded the club in an extremely well-decorated era under Abramovich. Injuries, inconsistency in tactics and complacency let them down at the Yokohama Stadium, but they now have the chance to undo it.

WHO WILL THE BLUES GO UP AGAINST IN THE SEMI-FINAL?

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Being the winners of the UEFA Champions League, Chelsea will join the competition at the semi-final stage where they will go up against the Saudi Arabian side Al Hilal. The winners of the Saudi Professional League are no pushovers and have a lot of history on the continental stage – having won the AFC Champions League a record number of four times. Winning Asia’s premium club competition for the record-breaking fourth time in 2021 qualified Al Hilal for the Club World Cup, where they will compete for the second time having finished fourth in 2019.

‘Al’Zaeem’ have plenty of experience at the top level, being coached by former AS Monaco head coach in Leonardo Jardim and boasting of players such as Odion Ighalo, Moussa Marega and Matheus Pereira – players who were playing in top-flight European leagues not too long ago. While their Portuguese head coach managed in the UEFA Champions League semi-finals as recently as in 2017, Marega lined up against Chelsea in the quarter-finals last year – but it is certainly Matheus Pereira who has the fondest of memories against the European champions.

Pereira ran riot at Stamford Bridge while playing for West Bromwich Albion in the Premier League in April last year, as he scored a brace in a 5-2 win for the Baggies in what was Thomas Tuchel’s first defeat as the Chelsea head coach. Al Hilal are also in good form going into the outing having been unbeaten in their last six games, and breezing past Al-Jazira in a 6-1 win to qualify for the semi-final. After going a goal down, the Riyadh-based side struck six courtesy of six different scorers, sending a statement to anybody downplaying their chances against Chelsea.

IF THEY GO THROUGH, WHO DO CHELSEA FACE IN THE FINAL?

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As fate would have it, if Chelsea gets past Al Hilal in the semi-final, they have a Brazilian side waiting in the wings to contest them in the final. Palmeiras, the winners of last season’s Copa Libertadores reached the final after defeating Al Ahly 2-0 in their semi-final tie, and await either Al Hilal or Chelsea in Saturday’s final. The ‘Alviverde’ are historically one of the best teams that South America has to offer, having won the Campeonato Brasileiro Série A a record number of ten times in their history as well as the continent’s premium club competition thrice.

Apart from being the most successful side in Brazilian domestic football, Palmeiras are also a club in form – having been unbeaten in six games going into the final. Five wins in six games having scored ten goals while conceding just once means that Palmeiras will back themselves against even the champions of Europe if they come knocking, knowing that they will have a mob of passionate supporters cheering them on in the final. Palmeiras can draw inspiration from their arch-rivals Corinthians in their attempt to replicate their heroics and inflict misery on the Blues.

The Sao Paolo-based outfit are managed by Abel Ferreira, and have the likes of Dudu, Raphael Veiga and Roni leading the line for them – the first two were both on the scoresheet in Palmeiras’ semi-final win over Al Ahly. Palmeiras will also have a point to prove after unceremoniously bowing out of the Club World Cup in the semi-final stage last year in Qatar while going on to lose on penalties in the third-place play-off as well – and there is no better way to make a proper statement than to knock out the champions of Europe if they are given the opportunity to.

CAN CHELSEA MAKE SURE HISTORY DOES NOT REPEAT ITSELF?

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In their attempt to become only the third ever English side to win the Club World Cup (after Manchester United and Liverpool), Chelsea will hope for history to not repeat itself. The Blues travelled to the United Arab Emirates with a 23-man squad boasting of some of the biggest names in world football, but head coach Thomas Tuchel has not travelled with his contingent after testing positive for COVID-19 last week – the German is currently isolating in London.

Tuchel was not at the Stamford Bridge dugout at the weekend to see Chelsea need extra time to get past Plymouth Argyle in the fourth round of the FA Cup, but he will be hoping to join his squad by Friday provided that he returns a negative test. In Tuchel’s absence, his assistant Zsolt Löw addressed the press ahead of their semi-final clash – the Hungarian was full of praise about their opponents who he described as “a very good team who have very good quality upfront and they can score a lot of goals.” Löw also added that he and Chelsea are expecting a difficult game.

Apart from the boss being unable to join his team in Abu Dhabi just yet, Chelsea also have a number of absentees who are either ruled out or are still doubtful for the game. Though Reece James has travelled with the squad, it is still too early for him to take part while Mason Mount is doubtful after picking up a knock at the weekend. Édouard Mendy is due to join the squad fresh off helping Senegal win the African Cup of Nations, and while he may return to contention soon, Kepa Arrizabalaga being in good form in his absence will give the coaches a selection headache.

Ten years on from the club’s first appearance in the Club World Cup, César Azpilicueta is the Blues’ only survivor left from the team that finished second to Corinthians. While the Spaniard had arrived at the club that very summer, ten years on he is the club captain and has won every available trophy except one. Having felt failure in the competition before, the skipper was motivated not to repeat their mistakes. “Everyone is aware how difficult it is and that we cannot miss our chance. We’re really motivated. Losing in 2012 hurt a lot,” said the Chelsea captain.

Azpilicueta added to his warning with more motivation for his teammates to add the one elusive trophy missing from the trophy cabinet at Stamford Bridge. “To win it for the first time for the club is huge. It has great meaning for everyone, for the fans. I think everyone tries to create their own history at the club.” In order to undo their miseries from ten years ago, Chelsea needs to make sure that they field their strongest available line-up and are at the top of their game, as even the slightest lapse in concentration can result in intercontinental heartbreak – as they well know.

Fernando Torres’ wastefulness saw Chelsea not being able to capitalise on their chances, and either Romelu Lukaku or Timo Werner – or both – will hope to be as clinical as possible to not let lightning strike twice. While the Blues missed the experience and leadership of John Terry through injuries in 2012 while Frank Lampard only came on as a substitute after an injury lay-off, they will hope that the well-seasoned Thiago Silva and Azpilicueta guide them to a win this time – in what is really an ‘opportunity of a lifetime’ for the latter to complete his arc at the club.

All in all, the Club World Cup provides much more than a much-needed period of rest away from the relentless Premier League schedule and a breather before the business end of the Champions League season – it provides a rare second chance at correcting a mistake from a decade ago, and complete their box set of silverware. Chelsea will go up against Al Hilal on Wednesday, 9th February at the Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi, and if they get through to the final – they will meet Palmeiras on Sunday, 13th February at the same venue.

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