The football may stop at Chelsea, but the drama never takes a break. Thursday saw decisions that will be felt at every level from the boardroom to the dressing room at Stamford Bridge, and a summer that always looked as problematic as it was pivotal now feels more perilous than ever.
ESPN FC runs through the big issues that will hang over Chelsea in the coming days and weeks.
1. Stamford Bridge redevelopment shelved
The significance of Roman Abramovich’s decision to halt work on Chelsea’s proposed new 60,000-seat arena cannot be overstated. From its conception five years ago the project was regarded as a labour of love by the Russian, in addition to being crucial for the club’s future growth.
Costs have since ballooned, complications multiplied and the completion date was pushed back. There are suggestions that Abramovich and his advisors were becoming increasingly concerned about the project’s economic viability, with around half of the £1 billion cost set to be covered by bank loans.
The reference to an “unfavourable investment climate” in Chelsea’s statement was not a nod to this, however. It instead signalled that Abramovich’s decision was the latest move in an increasingly public game of political chess with the UK government, which has delayed the renewal of his visa application.
Abramovich’s position is now clear: He is not willing to commit resources to a vast construction project in the capital of a country that does not make him feel welcome. His club, which requires a new stadium to compete with England’s and Europe’s elite as urgently as ever, is caught in the crossfire.
2. Abramovich’s commitment in exile
Chelsea were keen to stress on Thursday that it was “business as usual” aside from halting the stadium redevelopment, and that Abramovich’s commitment to the club remains “unwavering,” but the obstacles that now exist between the Russian and his prized sporting asset raise legitimate long-term questions.
Abramovich can legally enter the UK with an Israeli passport, but it is unclear whether he would want to as long as his actions in the country are subject to Home Office restrictions and political relations with Russia remain frosty.
Chelsea can and do function just fine under the day-to-day leadership of Marina Granovskaia, and Abramovich would be far from the first Premier League owner to pull the strings from another country or continent. But physical distance can easily become emotional distance. Money is not the only form of investment that Chelsea need from Abramovich, particularly at a time when so many important football decisions must be made in the vacuum created by technical director Michael Emenalo’s resignation in November.
3. Antonio Conte and Maurizio Sarri in limbo
The first important football decision looks no closer to being made, after Chelsea allowed the deadline governing the €8 million buyout clause in Sarri’s contract at Napoli to pass without acting on Thursday.
Sarri’s lawyers are reportedly looking into all possible ways of extricating himself from the uncompromising control of chairman Aurelio De Laurentiis. But such proceedings invariably take time to resolve, and time is one commodity in short supply this summer.
Chelsea will explore alternative choices, all while Antonio Conte waits. He has no reason to walk away from a potential £9m payoff and no big job to go to this summer — by all accounts he is not at the top of Real Madrid president Florentino Perez’s list to succeed Zinedine Zidane.
It is a truly bizarre situation, and one that must be navigated before any of the other big on-field decisions that await this summer can be made. With so much else to do, a slow appointment could prove almost as damaging for Chelsea as a bad one.
4. Hazard and Courtois are watching
Both of Chelsea’s key Belgians went public after lifting the FA Cup in challenging the club to show ambition when rebuilding this summer before they would consider committing to new long-term contracts.
It is hard to imagine either being reassured by the current managerial circus, or the fact that Chelsea are yet to kick their summer transfer plans into gear while Liverpool have signed Fabinho and Manchester United close in on Fred.
Chelsea would like to keep both, though Hazard takes precedence. There is a sense that goalkeeper Courtois, while exceptionally talented, will always have one eye on Spain and could more easily be replaced than the winger who has been the best attacking player on two Premier League title-winning teams.
Real Madrid are the threat and, given their penchant for protracted transfer sagas, resolution is likely to come on their timetable rather than Chelsea’s. Hazard and Courtois are also unlikely to want to address their futures until Belgium’s run in the World Cup is done.
5. Recruiting as a Europa League club
To miss out on Champions League football may be regarded as misfortune; to exile yourself from Europe’s elite club competition twice in three years looks like carelessness. Chelsea are not just trying to rebuild this summer, they are fighting the perception they are a club in decline.
Abramovich cannot splash out what the Manchester clubs can in the age of Financial Fair Play, so his club must seek an edge elsewhere. In recent years that has meant Chelsea spending smart rather than big, picking more intelligent targets than their rivals and moving quickly when deals can be done.
The last two windows did not pan out that way, however. Lengthy pursuits of priority names ended in failure, leading to undignified scrambling for signings in the final days and hours and an extremely disillusioned head coach.
Regardless of who succeeds Conte, Chelsea need to get back into the business of bringing top talent to Stamford Bridge. In a summer dominated by the World Cup and compressed by an earlier transfer deadline, every day that passes without progress is a missed opportunity.
Liam is ESPN FC’s Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.