How Chelsea allowed an era-defining team to slip through their fingers

Mo Salah
(Image credit: Getty)

Look back at the footage and Mohamed Salah still seems an incongruous presence amid the supporting cast in one of the most dramatic meetings between Chelsea and Liverpool. Eight years ago, he was in blue as Steven Gerrard slipped, Demba Ba raced away to score and, it soon became clear, the Premier League trophy was not headed to Anfield after all. Or not until Salah was Liverpool’s talisman and not a fringe figure for Chelsea, anyway. 

A reunion in Sunday’s Carabao Cup final comes with Salah already having scored as many goals against Chelsea this season as he ever got for them. A member of Jurgen Klopp’s feared front three is also part of another trinity: the three who got away. Chelsea got just two goals from Kevin de Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Salah before selling each. They brought in just over £50 million for players whose combined value may later have been six times as much.

If they have had plenty of time to repent decisions that could form part of the case for the prosecution of Jose Mourinho, they spent £98 million buying Lukaku back. After his seven-touch spectacular against Crystal Palace, there is no guarantee the Belgian will start on Sunday. There is no doubt Salah will. Rewind six months and Lukaku felt a potential rival for the Golden Boot. Instead, Salah has scored more Premier League goals than the striker, Kai Havertz, Timo Werner, Christian Pulisic, Hakim Ziyech and Callum Hudson-Odoi have got between them.

If Chelsea could wish Salah was the one they got back, Lukaku’s awkward return to Stamford Bridge should not deflect from the reality they could have done with each in a five-year spell without a sustained title challenge and when De Bruyne has twice been voted PFA Player of the Year, with the Egyptian a red-hot favourite to emulate him this year.

Chelsea have been consistently outscored by Liverpool and Manchester City. They have had no winger as deadly as Salah, no midfielder as consistently creative as De Bruyne. And, despite his recent struggles, no centre forward who got as many goals in a season as Lukaku did for Inter.

They can reflect upon Mourinho’s pragmatic short-termism. Prioritising the battle-hardened Diego Costa, Willian and Cesc Fabregas helped win the Premier League in 2014-15. Antonio Conte helped conjure a second title from Costa. The worker Oscar was the kind of defensive No. 10 Mourinho liked

They can also argue Mourinho was right to prioritise another talent in his early twenties, in Eden Hazard. Certainly there are reasons to argue he became Chelsea’s greatest player. In another universe, he may have faced competition from colleagues and contemporaries. Perhaps Hazard became the solo artist who could have been part of a supergroup.

And yet, if Mourinho was scarcely the manager to rip up a blueprint, possibly sacrifice silverware in the immediacy and rebuild around four youthful players, two words could help form an alternative history of Chelsea in recent years: what if. They have scarcely been starved of trophies in the last decade but the European champions have sometimes lacked the potency to win the Premier League and could have been more attack-minded and entertaining with that quartet in harness. They could have had a potentially era-defining side, one that could have taken over from Real Madrid and Barcelona as Europe’s dominant team; while Chelsea are indelibly associated with money, they would have had proof of bargain-hunting with four world-class scorers or creators acquired for a combined total of around £70 million. It may have required a culture of greater patience and a manager who could have overseen their development – in short, for Chelsea to stop being Chelsea – and maybe Pep Guardiola’s City and Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool would have found other high-class recruits, but the roll of honour could look very different if De Bruyne and Salah had teamed up.

If Chelsea perhaps did not anticipate how good De Bruyne would become, it is safe to say few anticipated the levels Salah would reach. Klopp grinned last week when the Egyptian scored his 150th Liverpool goal that he could not have imagined it would come so quickly. Nor, really, did anyone else. But for a golden couple of years, Chelsea were the best in the world at signing players who were on a journey towards being world-beaters. So while it would be an achievement to add the Carabao Cup to the Club World Cup, the European Super Cup and the Champions League, the regret might be that they could have had the team of their generation.

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