Chelsea's defeat at PSG is no disaster as they chase the Champions League
Have we been here before?
Chelsea are enduring a horrible season and are far from the top of the table. They have a Portuguese manager -- in his second stint at Stamford Bridge -- who gets a little too intense, falls out with part of the dressing room and is sacked, replaced by an affable interim boss seen as a low-key "players' coach." His job is not to screw things up too much before the inevitable summer rebuild and clear-out. They lose the first leg of the knockout stage against an ambitious side who had to face a European juggernaut in the group stage. And Edinson Cavani scores against them.
Yep, the above paragraph could be straight out of 2011-12. Chelsea are 20 points off the top now; they were 17 down back then. For Jose Mourinho, read Andre Villas-Boas (though of course, his first stint was as an advance scout, not manager). For Guus Hiddink, read Roberto Di Matteo and for Paris Saint-Germain (who were paired with Real Madrid in the group stage), read Napoli (who were stuck with Bayern Munich).
Cavani? Same guy. Still him.
You know how things turned out in 2011-12 and, no doubt, so too do the Chelsea players -- they went all the way to the final in Munich and overcame mighty Bayern on penalties. That's not a fairy tale; that's reality. A team so often among the favorites becomes an underdog in a nightmare campaign and ends up winning it all.
Does lightning strike twice? Can Chelsea actually win this thing?
The question may seem absurd, but it was just as far-fetched back then. (And if you really want to jump on the creepy coincidence bandwagon, you'll note that then as now, Zenit St. Petersburg faced Benfica in the round of 16).
This isn't to say that Chelsea will win the Champions League. Rather, it's a reminder that a feat like the one in 2011-12 is possible, particularly if certain things fall into place.
A rough look at the remaining sides left in the competition suggests that other than Paris Saint-Germain, seven teams are arguably or definitely better than Chelsea. Two of those seven (whoever loses the Juventus vs. Bayern and Arsenal vs. Barcelona match-ups) are guaranteed to go out this round. If Chelsea advance to the quarterfinals, there's a better than one-in-four chance they'll face the winner of Gent vs. Wolfsburg or Benfica vs. Zenit. It's not quite a ticket to the semifinal, but it's a whole lot more straightforward than dealing with a juggernaut.
Once you're in the semis, weird and wonderful things can happen -- like beating Barcelona over two legs as they did in 2011-12.
Of course to even contemplate this, they need to get past PSG, and they're 2-1 down from the first leg. That said, a 2-1 home win is barely better than a coin flip when it comes to predicting which team will advance in European competition. The excellent statistician "Mister Chip" crunched the numbers and found that in 286 of 584 cases, the side that lost 2-1 away came back to advance. That's 48.9 percent, which means history is suggesting PSG don't have a huge edge at all.
But there are more reasons to believe Chelsea have a puncher's chance. Then as now, they have a goalkeeper who is capable of carrying a team. You don't necessarily need to have a guy like that but if you do and he gets hot, it's a huge plus. Thibaut Courtois may have had a difficult, injury-marked season thus far but he has the tools to emulate Petr Cech's heroics in 2012. We know this because that's exactly what he did two years ago playing for Atletico Madrid.
If it's one of those tight, park-the-bus affairs, they have both a set-piece specialist capable of converting free kicks into goals (Willian) and plenty of aerial threats from dead-ball situations (Diego Costa, Gary Cahill, Branislav Ivanovic, Nemanja Matic and John Terry.) And they have guys (Cesc Fabregas, Oscar, Eden Hazard) with the vision and passing to unlock, tightly packed back lines. Sure, none of them have exactly lit it up this season. In fact other than Willian, nobody at Chelsea has performed consistently well for more than a week or two. But you don't need to be good all season long to win the Champions League. You only need to do it when it counts.
The Premier League won't be a distraction; Chelsea aren't going anywhere. They have Manchester City in the FA Cup this weekend, which means that run could end there too. If it doesn't, maybe that will be a sign too... after all, they won the FA Cup in 2011-12 as well.
What's more, there's a certain zeitgeist around the team which is not unlike 2012.
Back then, the club planned to search for a high-profile manager and clear the decks in the summer, shedding a lot of the veteran talent. This time four years ago, Didier Drogba, Florent Malouda, Frank Lampard and Terry were all in the final 18 months of their contracts and there was plenty of uncertainty over their future. (Malouda would stick around another season after the final albeit without ever playing for Chelsea again, Drogba moved to China six months later, Lampard and Terry both got extensions: how couldn't they?) Others, like Jose Bosingwa, Salomon Kalou and Raul Meireles -- the first two started the Champions League final, the other would have if not for suspension -- did end up leaving in the summer.
It's not dissimilar to the present. Terry, of course, has not been handed a new deal. Oscar, Hazard and Diego Costa have all been subject to transfer speculation to the point where it might not be a good idea to buy a 2016-17 Hazard Chelsea jersey just yet.
Uncertainty can cause one of two things: You either lose confidence and shrivel up or you seize the opportunity (few are better than the Champions League knockout shop window) to prove the doubters wrong.
The stakes are high for the club as well. They made a £23.1 million ($33 million) loss in 2014-15, will make a whole lot less in Premier League prize money than anticipated this year -- they normally budget for a top-four finish, which won't happen -- and there will be no Champions League revenue next season unless, of course, they win it). It's not exactly an ideal situation in which to conduct a summer of rebuilding, particularly when you need to lure a top-drawer manager as well. Not in an era of Financial Fair Play requirements, anyway.
It would take a lot more than simply the likes of Hazard, Oscar, Fabregas et al playing to their potential for Chelsea to pull it off. They'd need to be lucky as well, both in the draw (Barcelona vs. Bayern and Manchester City vs. Real Madrid would be nice) in terms of big guns getting upset (maybe PSV Eindhoven can do them a favor and knock off Atletico Madrid) and in terms of the officiating. They got all that in 2012; there's no reason it can't happen again this year.
Chelsea aren't favorites to win it. They aren't second, third, fourth or fifth favorites, for that matter. But a lot of the components that were there in 2012 are in place today. And if Diego Costa can channel Didier Drogba while Hazard plays Juan Mata and Courtois turns in a shutdown performance ... who knows?
Except maybe this time someone will tell Terry there's no need to get sent off in the first half of the semifinal second leg.
Gabriele Marcotti is a columnist for ESPN FC, The Times and Corriere dello Sport. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.