Chelsea made a remarkable habit of winning trophies in even their most disastrous or transitional seasons under Roman Abramovich — and the club has a chance to continue that trend in the new era after reaching the Carabao Cup Final.
However underwhelming and frustrating Chelsea’s first season with Mauricio Pochettino has been to date, the club can now look forward to a Wembley day out against Liverpool or Fulham on February 25 — set up by a ruthless thrashing of Middlesbrough in last night’s semi-final decider at Stamford Bridge.
A string of Pochettino’s predecessors, from Antonio Conte to Rafa Benitez to Roberto Di Matteo, won silverware to salvage flat or downright depressing campaigns, typically turning to the cups when all hope of the Premier League title was already lost.
Today, the circumstances are very different, but the underlying trend is the same, with Pochettino conscious that lifting a cup is his only chance of making a success of an otherwise testing first season in west London.
“It is very important for us,” said the Argentinian, who insisted he was “desperate” to win a first trophy in English football after five-and-a-half years of near misses with Tottenham. “We don’t have the possibility to play in the Champions League or be in Europe.”
— Chelsea FC (@ChelseaFC) January 24, 2024
This will be Chelsea’s third League Cup Final in six years, but the two previous occasions feel like part of an entirely different era, and Thiago Silva was the only survivor from last night’s squad who played in the defeat by Liverpool on penalties in 2022 — underlining the turnover.
Silva and Raheem Sterling aside, Pochettino is under no illusions that his group of players lacks the experience and winning know-how of previous squads, but he draws a sharp distinction between Chelsea the team and Chelsea the club, believing the winning culture from the Abramovich era remains firmly in place.
“With this type of experience to go to Wembley, we’re going to build our trust, confidence and mentality as a team, not as a club,” he said.
“Because the club, the mentality and the culture is amazing. It’s to win. But as a new team we need to build this confidence and trust and feel what it means to play a final.”
Winning the Carabao Cup, and particularly avenging their two domestic cup final defeats by Liverpool in 2022, would go some way to confirming Pochettino’s conviction that Chelsea still have their winners’ DNA in spite of so much upheaval in the past 18 months.
More immediately, last night’s thumping victory relieves the pressure on the head coach and buys everyone at the club, from the players to the ownership, breathing space.
Before the final, Chelsea face Liverpool and Manchester City in the League, as well as hosting Aston Villa in Friday’s FA Cup fourth round, but they will be sustained through any downturn in results by the thought of Wembley.
Looking ahead, Pochettino will have just a year remaining on his contract at the end of the season, and winning a trophy would be a significant achievement, strengthening his hand with the board and helping to endear him to a fanbase which remains unconvinced.
"It was difficult to say if Chelsea were particularly outstanding or Boro simply naive"
Last night was encouraging, Chelsea ripping through Boro in their best display under Pochettino and showing no signs of pressure, despite trailing 1-0 from the first leg.
Jonny Howson’s own-goal levelled the tie inside 15 minutes, and further strikes by Enzo Fernandez, Axel Disasi and Cole Palmer killed off the Championship side before half-time, with Sterling involved in the first three goals in an outstanding display from the right.
Michael Carrick’s side might have got away with a 4-0 defeat, but Conor Gallagher came off the bench determined to make a mark and created further goals for Palmer and Noni Madueke, before Morgan Rogers’s late consolation for Boro.
It was a little difficult to say if Chelsea were particularly outstanding or Boro simply naive, but Pochettino will not care.
A cup final awaits, and with it the chance to save Chelsea’s season and prove that this club still knows exactly what it takes to win.