Thomas Tuchel admits Chelsea are fighting to “survive” as the spluttering Champions League holders prepare to face Lille in the last 16 first leg on Tuesday.
Tuchel’s side have won their last five games in all competitions, but there was little joy on the German’s face when he reflected on Saturday’s 1-0 victory at Crystal Palace.
The honeymoon is definitely over for Tuchel as he approaches the business end of his first full season as Chelsea boss.
In just five months in charge last term, Tuchel led Chelsea to the Champions League crown and the FA Cup final, as well as a top four finish in the Premier League.
When Romelu Lukaku was signed from Inter Milan for a club record £97 million ($131 million), it was expected the Belgium striker would help Chelsea enjoy a period of sustained dominance.
Chelsea were tipped to emerge as serious challengers for the Premier League title and in the early weeks of this season it seemed they might live up to the hype.
But in the grip of a windswept winter in Britain, Tuchel has found it increasingly tricky to keep Chelsea from being blown off course.
The first signs of discontent behind the scenes emerged when Lukaku went public with complaints about the way he was being deployed by Tuchel.
Forced to apologise, Lukaku has cut a disconsolate figure ever since and remains without a league goal since December.
Lukaku was completely anonymous against Palace and had only seven touches — the lowest by a player over 90 minutes since Opta started recording the statistic in 2003-04.
That victory at Palace was only Chelsea’s third in their last nine league games, a dismal run that effectively shattered their title hopes.
Chelsea are 13 points behind leaders Manchester City, making retaining the Champions League their main goal for the rest of the season.
Somehow, it was fitting that Tuchel revealed after the Palace game that six of his players were suffering with colds caught on the flight back from Abu Dhabi, where Chelsea recently lifted the Club World Cup.
Even winning that competition for the first time in Chelsea’s history felt like something of a pyrrhic victory for Tuchel.
The Blues laboured to their wins against Al-Hilal and Palmeiras in Abu Dhabi and it was more of the same when they returned to domestic action at Selhurst Park.
With Chelsea unable to establish any rhythm, it needed a last-minute goal from Hakim Ziyech to consolidate third place.
Amid talk that a section of the squad are unhappy that senior stars like Cesar Azpilicueta and Antonio Rudiger have yet to be given new contracts, Tuchel is searching for a winning formula.
He ditched his favoured 3-4-3 wing-back formation to go with a flat back four at Palace, but although the result was positive, he conceded there is still plenty of room for improvement.
“We are trying to survive at the moment and you can see. There is a lot of pressure going on if you go to a Club World Cup and want to win it for Chelsea,” he said.
“The players put a lot of pressure on themselves and then we haven’t played Premier League for four weeks.
“It is a huge and strange mix of a lot of reasons why I personally did not over-expect today performance-wise. I know we can play better, I want to play better.”
Two crucial fixtures this week will serve as a barometer of Chelsea’s morale.
If they win their European assignment against Lille at Stamford Bridge, then beat Liverpool in Sunday’s League Cup final at Wembley, the mood music around Chelsea will be more uplifting.
But a pair of negative results would only cement the impression that all is not well.
“Of course it is hard but that is why you play football, to win trophies,” Ziyech said.
“That is what we are trying to do. We have won two already this season and still have more to go.”