James GoldmanMetro.co.uk Sports EditorSaturday 19 May 2018 6:30 am
The sight of Olivier Giroud sinking to his knees, staring at the heavens, his face a mixture of anguish and disbelief. It was a picture that would have resonated with Arsenal fans as Chelseas remote hopes of Champions League qualification disintegrated at Newcastle last Sunday.
Giroud had just seen a trademark, goal-bound flick tipped spectacularly over the crossbar by Martin Dubravka. Within a flash, Ayoze Perez had capitalised on Chelseas defensive uncertainty to double Newcastles lead and, in that instant, Antonio Contes January recruit could have been forgiven for thinking the only thing that had changed since his move from north to west London was the colour of his shirt.
Summoning Giroud from the substitutes bench in times of trouble became Arsene Wengers trusted get out of jail free card during the latter days of his Arsenal career. Indeed, the 31-year-old turned the tide in Arsenals favour a year ago as his cameo contribution and a typically unselfish run into no-mans land yielded Aaron Ramseys FA Cup winner against his current employers.
That Giroud already appears to have earned Contes trust at the expense of a confidence-shorn Alvaro Morata feels symbolic on many levels, most pertinently that the gap between the London rivals is as narrow as it has been since Roman Abramovich rolled into town. The comparison paints neither club in a complementary light.
While Arsenal appear to be moving with at least some measure of conviction towards appointing Mikel Arteta as Wengers successor, the uncertainty engulfing Chelsea is beginning to have a toxic effect. And, with their owner seemingly unable to offer a guarantee of being able to bankroll an unprecedented summer of spending, the rebuilding job required at Stamford Bridge is vastly different to the one Conte embarked upon just shy of two years ago.
The Italian claimed last week that whoever is in charge next season, and it seems inconceivable at this stage that it is to be him, will find a club in a far healthier state than the one which slumped to a 10th placed finish before his appointment, as Jose Mourinhos second spell in charge came to an ignominious and poisonous end.
In reality, Contes successor will inherit a squad that punched well above its weight to win the title without the distraction of European football last season, a defence in need of a linchpin, a midfield which is almost solely reliant on NGolo Kante and a forward line lacking the talismanic qualities of a Didier Drogba or Diego Costa.
Chelsea appear to have been priced out of the market for Toby Alderweireld, destined to leave Tottenham for Manchester United, and are reportedly targeting a move for Newcastles Jamaal Lascelles. The 24-year-old has clearly benefited from the management of Rafa Benitez and was perhaps unlucky not to be considered for England World Cup selection, but he remains a world away from the markets Chelsea had been accustomed to shopping in.
Antonio Conte's Chelsea signings
Michy Batshuayi – £32,300,000
NGolo Kante – £30,000,000
Eduardo – Undisclosed
Marcos Alonso – £23,000,000
David Luiz – £34,000,000
Willy Caballero – Free
Antonio Rüdiger – £29,000,000
Tiemoue Bakayoko – £40,000,000
Álvaro Morata – £60,000,000
Davide Zappacosta – £23,000,000
Danny Drinkwater – £35,000,000
Ross Barkley – £15,000,000
Emerson Palmieri – £20,000,000
Olivier Giroud – £18,000,000
Conte failed to land his preferred transfer targets last summer and ended up with Danny Drinkwater, who made just three Premier League appearances since the turn of the year, and reserve wing-back Davide Zappacosta, while Ross Barkley and Emerson Palmieri, who arrived along with Giroud in a late January trolley dash, have offered nothing.
Chelsea were at the height of their financial power when they were able to snatch Fernando Torres from Liverpool in what was then a £50million British record transfer, but these days it is they who appear vulnerable to their rivals.
Mourinho was able to acquire Nemanja Matic against Contes better judgement last summer, and appears set on raiding Stamford Bridge again for another of his trusted foot soldiers in Willian. Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois are yet to commit their futures to the club and the former has already warned he intends to see how the summer pans out before playing his hand.
Consigned to the Europa League, unable to compete in the transfer market, panicked into signing mediocre players not fit to lace the boots of their predecessors, star players threatening to wind down their contracts, it is all very Arsenal.
Like the Gunners recent FA Cup winning sides, Chelsea are still capable of competing with anyone over 90 minutes. They were the better team over two legs against Barcelona in the Champions League, beat Manchester United in November, won at Tottenham and blunted Liverpools attack in their 1-0 win over Jurgen Klopps side earlier this month.
As Arsenal have discovered three times since 2014, however, winning an FA Cup final, even against an established rival, does little to paper over the cracks.
More: Manchester United FC