Chelsea's inconsistent UCL efforts create reasons for hope and concern
It's difficult to know how to judge Chelsea's Champions League campaign so far this season.
On the one hand, there must be a reasonable amount of satisfaction with qualifying for the knockout stages -- especially after being given a tough draw in Group C. Although seeded as champions of England, Chelsea were handed Atletico Madrid and Roma; one a finalist twice in the past four years and the other a Serie A powerhouse stacked with talented footballers. And there were the supposed whipping boys of the group, Qarabag of Azerbaijan.
But having got off to a dream start by securing maximum points from their first two games including an historic 2-1 win away to Atletico, finishing second while only accruing a further five points from their subsequent four matches carries with it a tinge of disappointment. The chance to really make a statement after a year's absence from Europe's top table was missed despite that eye-catching victory at the new Wanda Metropolitano.
The decisive section of the group was clearly the back-to-back fixtures with Roma. That the Blues only collected a solitary point from their meetings was ultimately the difference between first and second place and yet it is hard to accept that the Italian's were markedly superior. The 3-3 draw at Stamford Bridge was an eventful affair in which Chelsea's clinical finishing saw them go up 2-0 before Edin Dzeko inspired his team to make it 3-2 before Eden Hazard levelled things later on.
The 3-0 defeat at the Stadio Olimpico was even stranger. Chelsea were utterly dominant in the first half and should have put the game out of sight only for a mixture of poor finishing and incisive counterattacks by the home side seeing Roma find themselves up 2-0 at the break. The second half, however, saw Chelsea put in their worst performance under Antonio Conte as they all but waved the white flag.
On another day, Chelsea might have won both those fixtures or at least been the team that reaped four points from them. Had N'Golo Kante been fit to play in either of them it is highly likely the Londoners would now be in the hat as group winners. Should Chelsea meet Roma again later in the tournament they will be confident of reversing their fortunes.
Though perhaps the most head-scratching turn of events of the group stage involved the impact of Qarabag. The Azeri champions were making their debut in the competition and were the first ever participants from the Caucasus country at this stage of the Champions League. Chelsea duly treated them as novices and won their two ties, sweeping them aside with an aggregate score of 10-0. But the other two teams in the group did not have it nearly so easy. Atletico didn't manage to win either of their matches, drawing both and scoring just once. Roma at least reaped two victories but each was by the odd goal. Had a late header from Qarabag midfielder Michel not been directed straight at goalkeeper Alisson, Roma might have drawn their final group game against Qarabag.
Whether Chelsea are pleased or disappointed with their campaign may well come down to who they are paired with in the next round when the draw is made in Nyon next Monday. Because of rules preventing clubs from the same nation or qualifying group meeting each other in the round of 16, there are only three available opponents for Chelsea -- Barcelona, PSG or Besiktas.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out which of the three potential opponents Chelsea would prefer. Besiktas clearly represent the less perilous option, though a trip to the hostile Vodafone Arena in Istanbul for the second leg would be far from comfortable. Sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for.
Nevertheless, PSG and Barcelona are -- with the possible exception of Manchester City -- the two strongest remaining teams and would be best avoided at this stage of the competition. Both are well acquainted with Chelsea with the Blues having experienced success and failure against each in recent times, the most notable being the dramatic 2012 semifinal aggregate win against Barcelona having been 2-0 down in the second leg at the Camp Nou whilst reduced to 10 men.
The threats of Lionel Messi and Neymar would be the most obvious obstacles to advancement, though Chelsea's very own superstar, Hazard, always asks enough questions to make any opponent nervous. Though Chelsea will want to avoid the big boys, you can be equally certain that PSG and Barcelona will be keen to avoid a trip to London next spring. But whatever will be, will be. It's knockout football next and anything can happen.
Phil is one of ESPN's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @PhilLythell.