In a devastating blow for the club, Chelsea are out of the Champions League for the second time in three seasons as last year’s Premier League champions could only manage fifth this time around.
It is a worrying sign for a club that has been supremely ambitious since the Roman Abramovich takeover back in 2003.
Fittingly, they return to the Europa League following a defeat to Rafa Benitez – the Newcastle manager who won that competition for Chelsea the last time they featured in it back in 2013.
Chelsea put in an awful first half display at St James' Park, failing to muster a single shot as they trailed 1-0 at the break. In the second half they capitulated as two Ayoze Perez goals completed a 3-0 scoreline. Liverpool eased to a 4-0 win over Brighton, extinguishing any hope Chelsea had of overhauling them.
But the damage was done long before Chelsea travelled to Newcastle on the final game of this season. The Blues dropped points all campaign against lesser lights like Bournemouth, Watford, Crystal Palace, West Ham and Huddersfield – and their inability to put away their chances in front of goal ultimately proved costly.
Manager Antonio Conte has ended a run of four league titles in a row – having also won three in succession for previous club team Juventus - and he seems to be the man many are blaming.
However, it is reductive to solely point the finger at him for the stagnation at Stamford Bridge. Indeed, Chelsea fans need to accept that they are not the powerhouses of the European transfer market as they were when Abramovich arrived 15 years ago. The Russian oligarch can no longer compete with the likes of the Manchester clubs, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain.
Chelsea have had to change their transfer policy as a result, recruiting younger and developing players and becoming more like Borussia Dortmund than Manchester City. However, this new model hasn’t always been easy to adopt.
Alvaro Morata struggled to adapt to the physical nature of the Premier League, the lack of a winter break and the increased responsibility that being a £60 million signing brings. Despite a fine start to the season, he has laboured for long periods of the campaign and largely failed to replace Diego Costa.
Tiemoue Bakayoko also fell well short of expectations and his failures ruined Conte's plans to field a three-man midfield this season. Danny Drinkwater and Ross Barkley have hardly played, Emerson Palmieri has only been truly fit for the very end of the campaign, while Davide Zappacosta has not been the most influential, either.
There has been constant friction all year between Conte and his bosses over transfers. Olivier Giroud and Antonio Rudiger have made an impact, but the truth is that the majority of Chelsea’s signings in 2017-18 have not delivered as expected and their title defence has thus been a weak one.
“I don’t know if my ambition is shared by the club,” Conte complained in March. “It’s very important to have the coach and club with the same ambition: to improve the team, the quality of the players. If you have this situation, you can win the League, the FA Cup, the Champions League.
“I have great ambition but I don’t have money to spend for Chelsea. The club knows what my ambitions are. When you decide to work with this type of coach, you take on a coach with great ambition. Not a loser, a winner.”
Chelsea signed eight players this season and four arrived injured. The decision to sell the tactically vital Nemanja Matic and their leading scorer from last season, Diego Costa, also backfired given the struggles of Bakayoko and Morata, respectively.
The club is lacking a technical director and Conte believes that has made an impact on his side's season. There has also been uncertainty for most of the term about whether Conte will still be at Stamford Bridge next season – and this has also had a negative effect. Things should become clearer after the FA Cup final against Manchester United, which is Chelsea’s last chance to salvage something positive from this season.
Chelsea lack the direction and identity of the rest of the top six clubs. Their radical overhaul of the squad - coupled with their constant turnover of managers which has seen eight coaches in as many seasons - has not helped in this regard.
The Blues will only lose £30 million in television revenue from not being in the Champions League, and will likely make up much of this shortfall with commercial deals, but far more costly will be the fight to maintain their prestige.
It is hard to see many players choosing Chelsea over the Manchester clubs in the summer, with the two northern powerhouses offering the chance to play in Europe's elite competition and a better financial package. Some of Chelsea’s current top stars will also ask the question whether they are happy to play another year outside of the Champions League.
Conte may not be in charge next season and his future will likely be confirmed following an end of season meeting. It is still unclear who the next manager will be, but the leading contenders are Napoli’s Maurizio Sarri (pictured, below), Monaco’s Leonardo Jardim and Juventus’ Massimiliano Allegri, with Luis Enrique understood to have dropped out of the race.
Whoever replaces Conte, they certainly have one hell of a job on their hands. Conte may have won the title in his first season after the club had finished tenth the previous campaign, but circumstances are different now.
Today, the Manchester clubs are much stronger, while Champions League finalists Liverpool are on the up, too. Following a miserable campaign, simply returning to the top four would be a big achievement for Conte’s successor in 2018-19.