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 By Phil Lythell

Champions League return to test Chelsea's depth, stamina

If, as the saying goes, a week is a long time in politics, then a year is a lifetime in football. For Chelsea, last season's absence from European football with no floodlit matches against the cream of the continent felt like an eternity even if it did indirectly contribute to them becoming Premier League champions.

On Tuesday night, the club's love affair with the world's elite club competition will be reignited when Qarabag, the champions of Azerbaijan, travel to Stamford Bridge for the opening matchday of this year's group stage. On paper, a game against a team making its debut in the competition should pose few problems for Chelsea but even if they do get off to a good start, recreating the successes of yesteryear will be incredibly difficult. 

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The club's history in the competition only dates from the 1999-2000 season. But while their longevity at the top table might not compare to some of European football's aristocracy, their achievements during the intervening period certainly do. In 14 Champions League campaigns, they have made five semifinals before being eliminated, two other quarterfinals and have only failed to make it out of the group stage on one occasion. They were unfortunate to be runners up to Manchester United in 2008 following a penalty shootout despite being the better side overall and hitting the woodwork twice in the final. And of course, they eradicated any lingering resentment by somehow defeating Bayern Munich on their own patch in 2012 to create history and give those who were clad in blue at the Allianz Arena the greatest night of their lives.

With such an eye-catching recent pedigree in the competition, it is understandable that there is expectation around Chelsea's involvement this season. But while supporters will be optimistic and dream of replicating past glories, doing so will be an uphill task. First, Chelsea will have to negotiate their way out of a tough group, which features a streetwise Atletico Madrid that have reached two of the last four finals and a Roma side that finished second last season in Serie A, just four points behind Champions League finalist Juventus.

Although Chelsea will still fancy their chances of getting through to the knockout stages, squad strength could well become an issue after that. The deadline day arrivals of Davide Zappacosta and Danny Drinkwater were very welcome and Antonio Conte certainly has more options at his disposal now than at the start of the season. Whether they will be enough to cover for any injuries to key players or the fatigue that envelops a group of players fighting on multiple fronts remains to be seen. In comparison to European giants Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, resources seem sparse and even pale next to the resources available to Manchester City and Manchester United. And as for Chelsea's most recent European nemesis, Paris Saint-Germain, their astronomical dual acquisition of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe makes them genuine contenders for the first time.

Young Charly Musonda could make his second Chelsea appearance on the big stage against Azeri champions Qarabag.

Thankfully, in football, nothing is entirely predictable. Just take Chelsea's win in 2012. The triumph in Munich might have been deserved for their body of work over the previous decade and having been the victim of numerous refereeing injustices. But, considering the quality of opposition that Chelsea had to defeat en route and that they did it with arguably their weakest team up to that point, it went against all logical reasoning.

There is therefore no harm in dreaming. After all, that is what being a football supporter is all about. The dream can only become a reality, however, if Chelsea make sure they clear the easier hurdles and that means beating Qarabag, ideally by a decent margin, on Tuesday night. Given the other opponents in Group C, the opening match is already a must-win and Conte will know the importance of hitting the ground running.

Complicating things for the manager is the looming visit of Arsenal on Sunday, meaning that he is due to field an understrength team against Qarabag. Among those likely to be rested is Alvaro Morata, though he is likely to be part of a powerful substitutes' bench, alongside the likes of Eden Hazard, that will be called upon if things aren't going as planned.

In their place, Michy Batshuayi should get a start and young Charly Musonda has every chance of being involved. While the Champions League might seem an odd place to blood youth graduates, it was the same stage where Carlo Ancelotti gave Gael Kakuta and Josh McEachran their spurs during his two-year tenure as manager. Both of them shone in their outings even if their subsequent Chelsea careers never really got going. If given the opportunity, Musonda will hope to make a greater long-term impact than those two predecessors while Chelsea will have similar ambitions of a lengthy stay in this season's Champions League. And it must begin with victory.

Phil is one of ESPN's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @PhilLythell.


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